Nairobi, KENYA:  Members of African Gay and Lesbian communities demonstrate against female genital mutilation, 23 January 2007 at the Nairobi World Social Forum venue in Kasarani, Nairobi. Some 46,000 participants are attending the seventh edition of the World Social Forum taking place this week in Kenya, organisers said Monday as hundreds of youths protested registration charges. Organisers had hoped to attract about 160,000 anti-globalisation activists, but about one third of that figure turned up for the conference that kicked off in Nairobi at the weekend and set to conclude on Thursday.       AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI  (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Leyla Hussein is a psychotherapist specialising in supporters of sexual abuse. She is the founder of The Dahlia Project, the UK’s first specialist therapeutic service for female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors, and the advocacy director for The Girl Generation, which supports the movement to end FGM in Africa. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

I want to begin with a painful experience I went through at age seven. Please be warned that this may be triggering.

Leyla Hussein

Imagine me then – a lively, happy little girl waking up to a beautiful morning in Mogadishu, Somalia. I noticed a party at my house but also sensed a strange energy in the air. It was unsettling. Only women were there, and I recognised many of my aunties, neighbours and house staff.

I thought: “Today isn’t my or my sister’s birthday.” My mother loved throwing us lavish parties, and this party didn’t look very elegant.

I was standing outside our kitchen when my neighbor’s nine-year-old daughter approached me. “Leyla, today is your special day,” she said. Confused, I told her, “It’s not my birthday.” She clarified, “No, today is the day you become a woman, your extraordinary day.”

When I asked what she meant, she explained that I would have my “gudniin” that day. She cautioned me to be brave and not cry during the procedure, where a doctor would remove some of my private parts and stitch me up.

I felt an out-of-body experience after she said this, and I could only see her mouth moving. I was surprised that, as a Somali girl, I didn’t know about this.

As I stood there, I remembered my mother’s words: “No one should ever touch your private parts; it’s wrong.” Just as I was about to voice my thoughts, a piercing scream echoed from the other side of the house – a sound that would haunt me for life.

It sounded like an animal being crucified, but I soon realised it was my five-year-old sister screaming for our mother, who was nowhere to be seen. This was out of character for my mother, who never left our sight.

My sister called out my name, begging for my help. As a seven-year-old, I felt helpless without my mother and unsure how to assist my sister.

Suddenly, someone said, “Get Leyla now; it’s her turn.” Fear consumed me, and I ran as fast as possible, my legs numb with terror. Several of my aunts chased after me, but being only seven, I quickly grew tired.

Finally, they led me to a room in our house – a space we used for studying and private tutoring.

In the room were two men and several women whom I recognised. One of the men was identified as a doctor who instructed: “Pin her down properly.”

Despite my pleas to the women in the room, whom I trusted, loved, and had danced with at parties, they appeared cold and emotionless. One of them instructed me to “stay still; this will be over soon.”

They lifted my dress and pulled down my underwear, causing me to feel shame and humiliation. I began to kick out at the doctor and the others, unable to comprehend why these adults wanted to see and harm my private parts.

Finally, the doctor raised his voice and called upon his six-foot male assistant to assist the four women in pinning me down. With their combined force, I could not continue kicking and lost control of my lower body.

All I had now was my scream.

One of the women stuffed cloth in my mouth. I felt a sharp object on my genitalia. I could feel pulling, my body sweating profusely, and my heart racing. I screamed into the cloth. The doctor shouted, “I numbed you; you shouldn’t feel a thing.” Tears streamed down my face.

I felt everything on my body, including the weight of five adults. I felt the stitching on my small labia. When he stopped, and the adults got off my body, the doctor said, “You were the naughtiest and most difficult. Hopefully, after this, you may begin to calm down like a good girl.”

Good girl? I thought I was always a good girl whom her parents loved. What did I do to deserve this?

The tragedy of 200 million girls

I have experienced Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which has left me with a lifetime of physical and emotional scars I will need to heal.

This violence is commonly referred to as a cultural practice in Africa. However, it is African girls who are the ones affected by it.

It is important to note that FGM is a global issue, not just limited to Africa, and is also practiced in some countries in the Middle East and Asia. Worldwide, more than 200 million girls and women live with FGM’s consequences, according to the World Health Organization. Additionally, 3 million girls are at risk each year.

Though in this article, I will focus on African girls only. On the continent, an estimated 92 million girls aged 10 or older have undergone FGM.

It is estimated that roughly every 10 seconds, a girl is mutilated in Africa. Imagine how many girls have been subjected to genital mutilation by the time you’ve finished reading this article.

Why do African girls endure this violence? Some cite culture, religion, hygiene or a rite of passage into womanhood as reasons. I underwent this at age seven and was considered a woman by my community.

I’m sure these reasons have confused you even more now that you have read my experience – and they should.

However, the main reason hundreds of millions of African girls have been forced to endure FGM is to control their sexuality, which is embedded in the patriarchal system.

One of the reasons why you may not hear about FGM in the mainstream media is because it affects African girls specifically. And sadly, due to their race, they are all too often ignored by the world.

Another reason is that the correct language is still not being used when addressing the subject of FGM. In media coverage or public discussion, it is often portrayed as a cultural, traditional or religious practice. However, labeling it as such creates a barrier to questioning it or expressing outrage.

This approach undermines the severity of survivors’ experiences. What we have endured is a grave form of sexual assault, and it is crucial that we acknowledge it as such.

Many individuals might fear being labeled as racist if they challenge this issue, but I believe that remaining silent and not speaking out against the brutalization of African girls is an act of racism.

So how do we deal with such a devastating issue? First, we must acknowledge the intersectionality of gender and race. The most vulnerable group is the African girl child, who is often denied fundamental rights such as education and health care. 

The list of challenges goes on, making it harder for them to speak out against the violence they face. And when society turns a blind eye to their suffering, they feel unvalued and invisible.

From survivor to therapist

As a survivor of FGM, I know firsthand the trauma it causes. But I also know that healing is possible. Now a psychotherapist, I’m helping others who have gone through the same experience. It’s a difficult journey, but one that’s necessary to end this silent pandemic once and for all.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned over the years, is recognising that touching a child’s genitalia is considered sexual assault. And when a knife or scissors are used in such an act, it becomes an even more severe form of sexual assault.

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    Using the correct language, we can empower survivors to speak out and make the world understand that what I, and 200 million others, have gone through was not a cultural tradition – it was violence.

    This is the focus of The Girl Generation, a program that supports the ongoing movement to end FGM in Africa. Through our survivor-led training, we help women understand the mental impact of FGM and the necessity of self-care, access the necessary resources, and, most importantly, how to use the correct language to describe their experiences.

    This has led to a safe space for mothers and daughters to acknowledge the violence they’ve suffered and begin the process of healing and forgiveness. It’s a crucial step in ending the cycle of violence and creating a better future for women and girls in Africa.

    I cannot stress enough the significance of standing in solidarity with the courageous survivors who have finally found the strength to confront the pain they endured in their childhood.

    Our responsibility as a society is to recognise and condemn these heinous crimes and ensure justice is served for African girls.

    Survivors’ voices must be heard, and their trauma acknowledged.