Archive for July, 2012

Imagine reaching 5 years old and being taken to a secret destination by your mother, whilst other children in your town or village are tucked up in bed.  When you arrive at the assigned location you are made to lie down.  A stranger or other family member holds you in place as a searing pain hits you down below.  The woman who brought you into the world has either cut your private parts or sewn them together.  She holds no surgical qualifications but performs the act anyway, perhaps using a sharp piece of glass or a knife.

Female Genital Mutilation is happening in 2012 but is closer than you might think – in fact, it could be happening in your own street!

Sammy* is one of the estimated 100,000  ‘survivors’ thought to be living in the UK (far more per square mile than in the US where it is estimated that 230,000 have been through FGM).  With water in her eyes she explained to me that the procedure she went through could have been fatal: her childhood friend died as a result of haemorraging.  Hearing how Sammy herself was held down by her mother, as her aunt sliced her with a razor blade in Somalia was shocking to listen to.  The procedure took place in some bushes and she reported that she felt like she ‘was going to die’, such was the pain.  The graphic details she gave of having to push material onto the wound to halt the bleeding when she was pre-school age, not to mention the consequential inability to stand up after the practice had been carried out, was almost too much to absorb.  In Somalia the average age for FGM is just 5 years old but in some places it is even younger.  I couldn’t help gulping as she told about me what she has endured.

Not long into our conversation I got the sense that the UK is probably not immune from such a practices and, sadly, my hunch was right.  It seems that as we go about our daily routines of school runs, commutes to the office and shopping trips, we are passing girls who live in fear of FGM happening to them, as well as those who have already been ‘under the knife’.  A researcher told me that it is estimated around ‘2,000 girls’ went through FGM in this country last year alone.  Apparently the trend used to be that parents would fly their daughters to African countries to get them ‘done’, but as the Government caught wind of it and tried to prevent such trips being made a new strategy was adopted.  Over the past years it seems there has been a rise in the number of families clubbing together to pay to fly someone over to perform ‘cutting parties’ at which the girls are lined up to be on the receiving end of FGM.  This is something which could be happening in the house next door to you!

The expert I spoke to told me that the practionners are not all flown in: some families attempt to carry out FGM themselves but she added (as if it were common knowledge) that, ‘it can also be done in Harley Street for a fee’.  It is worth clarifying that FGM is illegal in the UK, but as no prosecutions have been made here, London is now seen across Europe as the place to send your daughter to be cut rather than Africa because there is no fear of getting caught.

Whilst some girls will be dealing with the common challenge of monthly period pain this summer holiday, other young teens will be using the time away from school to experience and then recover from something which can only be labelled as a traumatic violation of human rights.  Sometimes a hole no bigger than a grain of rice is left, and the woman is expected to both urinate and menstruate through it!

What are we Christians doing about it?  Are we even aware that there are girls in our local schools, perhaps attending the same sporting activities as our own children, who live in fear of an overseas circumcisor turning up?  As believers our call is not just to gather together to pray but to impact our Communities practically, to be a voice for those who are unable to speak out.  If there are women on the streets where we live who are in fear of being taken to a ‘cutting party’, what is our response?  May we a) be moved to intercede for them & b) spread the word.  Let’s be the change together!

For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ ..- Matthew 25:35-40

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*Name changed.

Since writing this post I have been informed that BBC2 Newsnight will be broadcasting a programme on this issue 23rd July 2012

© Maria Rodrigues-Toth

I wasn’t sure what to expect when a reminder popped up on my computer screen saying that it was just 15 minutes until I was due to interview Zee*, a former sex worker.  She was probably anxious as well, wondering how she would be received, having experienced extensive verbal abuse from local residents during her 10 years working on the streets, not to mention one incident of almost being killed.

A smiley, small-framed, youthful looking woman met me in reception.  She seemed a little nervous, but was very accommodating and polite.  After a short time we found ourselves discussing the gritty reality of what happens when you have an addiction to heroin, the drug which took this former school governor onto the streets to sell her body, resulting in her regularly being arrested and having to live in bin sheds.

When I asked, she couldn’t work out how many men she had ‘serviced’ during her stint as a prostitute but estimated that it would have been ‘hundreds, probably thousands’, grimacing to herself in disgust as she tried to count.  She has been through a lot in her decade as a prostitute and considers herself to have got off lightly with ‘only 20 rapes’ and some ‘broken ribs’, suggesting that she could have had it far worse.  Many of the girls who worked the same streets used to call her ‘mum’ because she was older than them.  Hearing about 16 year old girls, who are of an age to be sitting GCSE exams, hanging around our cities ready to jump in a car with a man was sobering.

When Zee still lived in a home (rather than in garages or behind dustbins) her only daughter was taken from her because she had allowed groups of drug takers into the house.  She quickly qualified the statement by reassuring me that the ‘druggies’ were never in the same room as the young girl.  It was a situation far removed from the life Zee used to have when she had a daily commute into the city wearing a suit.  Casual drug taking had spiralled out of control and heroin was ruling her every decision.

Deep remorse was conveyed through her eyes as she told me how she had let her daughter down.  Recently Zee celebrated a year of being clean but, even so, she still sees no signs of her daughter being willing to reconcile with her.  Their only form of communication is an occasional letter.  She seems to accept that the pain and hurt takes time to heal, constantly repeating the phrase, ‘God’s will, not my will’ during our chat.

As our conversation unfolded she littered the interview with references to prayer and theological concepts like free will, so I asked where that understanding had come from.  When Zee was working nights a group of women from local Churches had been out on the streets offering support to people like her.  Rather than holding placards of condemnation or lining the women up for stoning, these believers had offered free drinks, snacks and toiletries.  What was their motivation?  To show these ladies that they are loved and that someone cares about them.  It was a night when free goodie bags were being handed out that Zee told me she had chased after the women to get one, and it was then she got told that God loves her.  That encounter was one of a series of encounters which helped her get her life back on track.

Not all sex workers are in the industry because of drug addiction.  Tessa* was groomed from an early age by her father to make money for him, and was sent out as a teenager to hang around on street corners to attract attention.  Others have been tricked into thinking that they are being given a good job only to find themselves caught up in a network of traffickers.  Zee was her own boss, reporting that it was ‘easy enough’ to get started once you knew where the red light districts areas were.  She shared how she began by having some boundaries in place, such as only allowing herself to be with a man in a car, but desperation for drug money quickly caused her to let her guard down.  Going into clients homes was dangerous and risky, so if a ‘customer’ refused to pay she explained that she would put up a fight for a short while before running for her life – forsaking her £20.  I learnt that if you are in this industry getting beaten up is to be expected as part of the course.

Did she find the experience degrading?  Zee’s honesty with me was humbling.  She quietly explained, almost whispering, that her self esteem was rock bottom and that she dislikes her body.  Only now the emotional and psychological wounds are starting to surface in her life because previously she had been numb to what was going on because of the drugs.  She admits that she is on a journey, attending Church regularly, and praying that ‘God’s will, not my will’ prevails, but that the process of recovery will take time.

As Christians we are called to stand against injustice, to protect the vulnerable, to be a voice for the voiceless, to house the orphan and bring hope to those in despair, but to do so with love.  Jesus demonstrated this when the woman who was caught in adultery was jeered at and threatened with being stoned to death for her act.  His response was profound and controversial: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  (John 8:7).

Prayer: Lord, may we see others through Your eyes, may our words and actions be driven by love and a desire to see all people living life to the full.  Amen.

Inspiring quote: “Prostitution does injury to the dignity of the person who engages in it, reducing the person to an instrument of sexual pleasure”. (2355 Catechism)

*Names changed.

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©Maria Rodrigues-Toth