The common thread of humanity binds us all and what we do individually affects the whole world. Dignity is one of our most important human qualities and it is very important to honour it in all our relationships and international engagements.
Nesrin Varol is an Associate Professor at Sydney Medical School, University of Sydney, and a Senior Lecturer at the Australian School of Advanced Medicine, Macquarie University. She also has a Master of International Public Health. She has worked as a gynaecologist in Sydney for 15 years and is now applying her knowledge and expertise to helping girls and women suffering the effects of female genital mutilation (FGM).
This ancient practice, prevalent in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is performed on children from birth to 15 years. It is generally performed with a razor blade without anaesthetic and involves cutting the external genitalia. It can cause serious side effects including HIV, damage to the rectum and urinary tract, obstetric fistulas (giving rise to the leakage of urine and faeces into the vagina) and, in some cases, death through bleeding. There are significant sexual and psychological complications, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety. These women and girls lose trust – and their dignity.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 3 million women and girls are at risk of being ‘cut’ every year. There is now evidence to suggest FGM is carried out on migrant children in Sydney despite the fact that it is a criminal offence in Australia carrying a maximum jail sentence of 21 years.
It was while Nesrin was working at a rural hospital in Ethiopia that she was confronted with the suffering of women and girls who had been subjected to FGM. On one occasion she treated a woman who had lost a baby in childbirth and whose family had deserted her because she had a fistula which made her smell. ‘I have never seen eyes like that before,’ Nesrin said. ‘There was no light in them … just a bottomless pit of darkness and misery. That was the moment I decided I was going to dedicate my life to helping these women.’ This was something of an epiphany for the doctor who grew up in Australia and wanted to help ‘women in the world who do not have a voice’.
In addition to running her medical practice, Nesrin is doing a PhD on the physical and psychological complications of migrant women in Australia who have been subjected to FGM. She is also working with the Federal Government on improving the healthcare of migrant girls and women who often suffer in silence as a result of FGM in their home countries.
There are only three hospitals in Australia that have specialised units that provide culturally sensitive counseling, holistic medical care and are able to perform a procedure that reverses FGM. Nesrin explains that there is a need for education and training of healthcare professionals, teachers, child protection, immigration and judicial sectors, and the police on the health and legal implications of FGM.
Nesrin says that the main reason FGM continues is the entrenched sense of social obligation to cut one’s daughter. Marriageability is an important reason for FGM. It is hence crucial to engage men in the debate because they are part of the solution. Communities of all religions practice it, i.e. Christians, Muslims, Jews, traditional African religions, even though no religion condones it. Circumstances permitting, many communities would like FGM to stop.
On an international level, Nesrin has been involved in the establishment of an African Co-ordinating Centre for the Abandonment of FGM based in Nairobi, Kenya. This includes the UN, WHO, universities, governments and NGOs and aims to centralise research and prevention programs and to implement a global response. She believes social justice and advocacy groups need to work together. Collaboration means power. It is all about communication at the grassroots level. Girls and boys at primary school level need to be empowered. ‘We need to provide a public space for conversations involving men and women, boys and girls, otherwise false expectations between the genders continue to be perpetuated.’
But there is hope for the future. There has been a decline in the prevalence of FGM globally and it is illegal in many countries. A 2013 report by UNICEF reported a discrepancy between the wishes of men and women wanting to abandon the practice and the reality of it continuing. It is a good sign that things are slowly changing and that we can help to make this dangerous, senseless and tragic practice history. Nesrin firmly believes FGM can be abandoned in the space of a generation.