This week, we visited Tyler, Texas to speak with a very brave young lady who openly speaks of her experiences with FGM, in spite of criticisms from people in her homeland. Join us and read the riveting story of Mariam Bojang!
GWPF: Mariam, you are a graduate student at the University of Texas in Tyler. What is your area of study?
Mariam Bojang: Yes, I am a graduate student at UT Tyler currently pursuing a degree in Political Science.
GWPF: Why are you interested in Political Science and International Relations?
Mariam Bojang: Ever since I was young, I built an interest in local and International Affairs. I remember my friends nicknaming me “current affairs” due to the fact that if anyone in class wanted to know anything about what was going on in the outside world they would come ask me because they knew I never missed the news especially international news. But apart from that, I come from a country where there are a lot of injustices being done. Human rights violations seem to be the top agenda of policy makers. In my country, being a political science major is the only degree that doesn’t qualify you for government scholarships and very few people especially women were encouraged to go towards that path. Studying political science helps increase my knowledge on political systems and how they are operated and IR also broadens my knowledge on the international political systems and how they interact with other bodies.
GWPF: Which country are you originally from?
Mariam Bojang: I am originally from the Gambia, West Africa.
GWPF: Share with us about your childhood in the Gambia.
Mariam Bojang: Normally when asked this question it is quite a bit hard for me to answer. I tell people I really didn’t have a childhood. For me, I grew so fast, more like skipped childhood and grew up into an adult. I cannot even actually remember doing anything I see children of this present generation doing. Apart from the fact that I grew up in an extended family home, had the privilege of going to school but still had to come home to help my mom as it is believed that the place of the girl child is in the kitchen and to bear children.
GWPF: You are outspoken about injustices against women, most especially female genital mutilation. Did you experience FGM as a child?
Mariam Bojang: Yes, I experienced FGM and that explains my desire to see it eradicated.
GWPF: Would you like to share your experience with our readers?
Mariam Bojang: One summer, I was told by my mother that I will be spending the summer vacation with my grandmother in the town of Jeshwang where my grandmother resided. Little did I know what awaited me as I jumped with excitement. We got there early the following morning and as it approached day light, I noticed people coming in the compound. Before noon, the place was filled with women and children and also a few men who sat at the front yard while the women were in the back cooking and celebrating. I asked my mum what was going on but she only told me there was a ceremony going on and asked me not to ask any further questions, so I didn’t. All the girls, about 25 of us were taken behind the house where the bathroom was located and each one of us was bathed in a traditional way after which we had our mothers come in with traditional cloths and beads. We were asked to form a straight line and as the women danced and cheered around us, they led us into another room. The door was locked behind us and the “nyang simbaa”, the title given to a person that performs the cutting in Mandingo, went ahead in front of us into the third chamber of the room which was the bathroom, while the elderly women sat in the second chamber which served as the bedroom. As the women cooked and cheered behind the closed doors, the ladies in the bedroom began their own preparations. The first girl was called into the room and she was led into the bathroom by one of the ladies. We heard her yell and scream and at that point, most of the girls had already begun weeping even though we still didn’t know what was going on. One by one, a girl was escorted into the other rooms and one by one, we heard them scream and yell at the top of their lungs. We could see them being carried away in the arms of the elderly women to another room because they were all unable to walk. At this time, the ladies stopped calling us in and instead, came to get us themselves because after the first batch of girls, no one went in when they were called. We ran to the door banging it hard for the people outside to help us. Others hid under the beds while others got into the cupboards. I watched the rest of the girls struggle with the women before being overpowered and taken inside. Again we heard the same screams over and over again. Just the waiting process was trauma of its own. With only a few girls left, I knew my time would be up soon and finally it came. It was my turn. As the women came to get me, they cheered while I cried my heart out. As I came closer to the second room, someone standing behind the door blindfolded me but not before I saw the razor blades being lined up and another woman, washing away the blood on the floor from the previous girl that went in before me. Seeing this, I started screaming and tried to take off my blindfold but they all came around me and the struggle began. I remember one of the women telling me nothing was going to happen so I shouldn’t cry but that didn’t stop me from crying and trying to break free. At this point, two women grabbed me, lifted me up from the cold cement floor and held me up in the air. Due to my instability, they asked for the help of other women. With the blindfold almost suffocating me because part of it was on my nose due to the push and pull, two women held my hands while another two held my legs. They stretched my legs apart and I felt a hand holding my waist in order to steady me. I remember crying and calling for my mum and grandmother for help as the procedure was performed. With no anesthesia, my legs were spread apart and a part of me was cut off from my genitalia. I didn’t know what was cut off then but one thing I knew, it was the most painful feeling I have ever felt in my entire life. We were warned never to speak of it again.
GWPF: When you agreed to be the FGM spokesperson for Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation (GWPF), you came under grave criticism and written attacks from the Gambian community. Why do you think they don’t understand what and why you’re doing what you do?
Mariam Bojang: Many people in the Gambia still have the same tribalism beliefs I had many years ago. That FGM purifies women, gave them voices in societies, saved them from being loose women and unwanted pregnancies and most importantly, fulfilling an important religious practice in Islam. What they don’t understand is that FGM only has disadvantages. The unnecessary practice only harms women and children and has no religious ties. FGM does not only lessen a woman’s urge for sex but also leaves her with numerous diseases and infections, child birth complications and also death. Many people in the Gambia are being told that “it’s the white man’s way of brainwashing and enslaving them” when they are being told about the truths of the unnecessary practice. Sensitization is being done but it isn’t getting through to a lot of people. A lot of work needs to be done to change people’s mindset and mentality. It might take time, money and a lot of effort but it sure isn’t impossible.
GWPF: As part of your spokesperson work with GWPF, last year you did a YouTube video in an appeal to the U.S. Department of Education to have a lesson in FGM/C included in the curriculum. What do you want to say now to the U.S. Education Department? How crucial is their decision to teach FGM/C to the American children?
Mariam Bojang: Introducing FGM/C in the school curriculum is of vital importance and a great step toward the fight to eradicate the practice. Many people believe FGM only happens in my part of the world but they will be surprised to learn that the practice happens everywhere, even in the United States. As the rate of immigration rises, we see an increase in the number of FGM survivors. Many of these children that come from countries that practice FGM and are survivors are the same people we attend school with, our neighbors, go to the same church or mosque with, etc. The reason why I’m so much for the inclusion of FGM in the school curriculum is to protect those children that are born to migrant parents that when of age, are being sent back to their parents’ countries on “vacation” and the procedure is performed on them. If FGM is being taught in schools, such children at risk will not only learn about the procedure, which is actually said to be a taboo back home as no one is to make mention of it, but they will also have access to help when they are at risk. Education in this area will also benefit the friends of students at risk whom in most cases come back to school after the vacations to a totally different friend who cannot play soccer like they used to, cannot ride a bicycle and most of the fun things they loved doing as a kid just because their innocence has been stolen from them. It will also benefit the teachers as they will be equipped with the information and skills needed to console and educate the students.
GWPF: You are a firm believer in Child Rights. Do you have any ideas and advice on how the U.S. can protect our little girls from experiencing FGM?
Mariam Bojang: One but yet very important advice I would like to be heeded by the U.S is the inclusion of regular screenings during immigration or travel proceedings. What I mean by this is, if a child is being taken out of the United States for any reason, they should be medically screened and made sure they haven’t been cut. When they arrive back into the United States, they should be screened again and made sure the child is safe from any cutting. And if there is a case of cutting, the parent should face the law and an example is to be set out of them.
GWPF: You are a human rights advocate. Tell us about your human rights work.
Mariam Bojang: Most of the work I do currently is through advocacy. By sharing my story, I haven’t only made it possible for other survivors to be at ease with sharing theirs but it has also brought me inner peace. We were told that anyone that discussed the process of FGM to a soul will have a spell caste on them or will be struck by lightning but the only way we can break the walls and penetrate people’s minds is by advocating for the eradication of FGM. With my work, so many people have reached out to me, people that don’t want anything but just to have someone that shares their experience to listen to them. Most of these women and girls that reached out to me were able to visit the gynecologist for the first time because of me. Like me, they were all shy and didn’t want to be ridiculed or have to explain their condition to the doctor since they knew they looked different down there and most likely the doctors haven’t probably seen anything like that before. I have also done T.V., magazine and radio interviews with several agencies as well as spoken at numerous events. Basically, I talk about FGM to anyone that’s ready to listen.
GWPF: You are the founder of the International Youth Council, Banjul Chapter. What are the mission and role of your organization?
Mariam Bojang: The main aim and objectives of the organization was to help achieve some of the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals) in the Gambia. Our main focus then was universal primary education and with my personal funds and the help of a few friends, we helped foster the education and supplied a few students with school supplies for a period of time.
GWPF: The Gambian President recently outlawed the practice of FGM in that country. How effective do you think the law will be obeyed by the people who practice FGM?
Mariam Bojang: We were all very optimistic when the law was passed but just a couple of weeks after it was, an infant was cut on and she bled to death. Many people are looking to that case to see if the law will be fully enforced and justice will prevail but till then, we are still hopeful as both mother and grandmother of the infant have been arrested and awaiting trial. Since the law has been newly passed, it’s a bit too early to say what the response of the general public will be but since the president is well feared, I’m pretty sure it will have positive effects especially in the urban areas of the country.
GWPF: Do you think FGM will ever be eradicated from the world? How do you foresee it happening?
Mariam Bojang: Yes, it might take a while but it is not impossible to attain it. Looking at current developments alone shows a lot and how far we have come in the struggle. Coming from being told that I would die if I ever mention the procedure to anyone, and to now stand in front of many and share my story without fear or favor alone is proof that FGM is coming to an end. The younger generation is becoming more educated and open to the outside world. They are doing away with ancient traditional practices and are standing up for themselves and making their voices being heard. Before now, there were several cuttings being done weekly but recently even those that perform the cuttings are laying down their razors and renouncing their inheritance of the practice for a better living. Those that are also still practicing it are using medical equipment that are well sterilized rather than before. Some are even having it done in a medical facility which is also a great step as it’s safer and we hope that too can be stopped.
GWPF: What do you want to say to the people of the Gambia about FGM?
Mariam Bojang: What I would like to continue telling the people of the Gambia is that gone are those days when we allowed certain cultural practices to ruin our lives. I personally see FGM as another way of male dominance as the main reason why it’s being performed is to lesson a person’s urge for sex while men on the other hand are allowed up to 4 wives in Islam. Regardless of this, Islam has nothing to do with the practice of FGM.
GWPF: Where do you see Mariam Bojang in 10 years?
Mariam Bojang: I hope to see myself living in a world free from all sorts of human rights violations. A world free of FGM where I don’t have to worry about taking my girl child to know her roots but then being snatched at night to be cut on or even afraid to leave her with relatives because they might cut her behind my back. A world where no mother has to die during child birth or suffer from still birth due to FGM. A place where no woman has to suffer from fistula, constant abdominal pains and other FGM related illnesses. I see myself living in a world where FGM is a thing of the past, history.
Join us next week when we introduce you to another fascinating woman.