I went abroad for surgery to reverse damage from FGM because the NHS couldn't do it

‘Yahoo News - Insights’ is a series in which we hear directly from people with an inside track of the big issues. Here, FGM survivor Shamsa Araweelo explains her journey to have pioneering surgery

Shamsa Araweelo pictured last year. She sought crowdfunding for the £40k reconstruction operation
Shamsa Araweelo pictured last year. She sought crowdfunding for the £40k reconstruction operation
  • Shamsa Araweelo is a 30-year-old survivor of female genital mutilation. She turned to TikTok to share her story. Her video explaining female genital mutilation (FGM) went viral with 11 million views.

  • FGM is illegal in the UK, and it carries a 14-year sentence. The first ever successful conviction in relation to FGM in this country was in October 2023.

  • TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of female genital mutilation.

I can't fully describe how it feels to be sown up while you're fully awake; it isn't something any human being should go through. We don't treat animals like that. We don't cut them up alive and sew them together.

As a six-year-old child, I was cut open with no anaesthetic and no painkillers. I can’t even begin to explain what happened to me. But that is female genital mutilation (FGM).

I grew up in a very small village in Somalia. The way that we grew up is very different from the way kids grow up here. We used to herd animals, milk goats and cows, and collect water.

We all knew that FGM was going to happen one day. Girls who had it done before us would say how amazing it is, how they feel so much better, and are more respected and part of the community.

We'd seen girls who were maybe eight or nine years old who were late to having their FGM, and they were cussed out on a daily basis - not by strangers but by the Dugsi (Islamic school) teacher, adults they know, women, men, children, even within their own families. They would be like, ‘You know the girl with the clitoris? She’s so dirty you need to have it removed, disgusting.’

'We didn't even say anything, we ran'

And because we used to hear it so often, we couldn't wait to get rid of whatever it was. We just wanted to belong. So, one day, my grandma came to us, and we were taken to have FGM. I was six, my sister was seven, and my cousin was five. We were taken into my grandmother’s other house, and there was a strange woman there. We didn't know who she was. It turned out she was the local "cutter".

She was sat on this very small chair made out of animal skin. We sat there patiently waiting for whatever it was to start. My cousin went through it first. They took her by the hand without her complaining, because she didn't know what was going to happen, and the moment she sat on the chair, she was firmly held. One member of our family grabbed each of her limbs. They forced her down on the chair.

We thought, 'why are you holding on to her like that?' It shocked us. We couldn't see everything at first, we couldn’t see the razor that was being used. But we could see the blood. We only freaked out because she started screaming from the top of her lungs, like nothing I've ever heard before. Immediately, a cloth was put over her mouth. The woman just continued cutting, telling her to be quiet. My sister and I looked at each other, and I swear to God, it was like we read each other's minds because we ran. We didn't even say anything, we ran and our uncle chased after us. By the time we had been brought back, our cousin was being sown together. She looked broken.

At that moment, we genuinely thought our family was trying to kill us because it just didn't make sense. Why would you do this? Especially the blood and the sewing and the screaming. It was just too much.

Shamsa Araweelo in front of art (Credit: Shamsa Araweelo)
Shamsa Araweelo pictured last year in front of artwork by Sonia Shishang at the London College of Communication (Credit: Sonia Shishang / Shamsa Araweelo)

Then it was my turn, and I was dragged to the chair, the one that my cousin had just bled out on. I was forced to sit down, and I was carried to that chair because I refused to walk. I refused to go there peacefully, knowing what was about to happen. The same thing happened. They held me down. But, I tell you, I was fighting — my adrenaline was high.

Years later, after I got involved in activism, I asked my auntie about the experience, and she said, 'I have never seen that type of strength in a child'.

My limbs were held down, and I refused to put my butt on the chair. I was almost levitating, I just refused. I just couldn't. My legs were forcefully separated, and then she started cutting. At first, it was really, really sharp. You pinch it, pull it and then cut it, and it was like it was never-ending. You could feel the warmth of the blood, you could feel that blade that touched your skin. But after a while, your body goes into shock because I didn't have any anaesthesia or painkillers, and my body sort of went numb, and I looked to the side of the "cutter".

I could see that next to her, there was a bloody jar that was almost half full of bits and bobs in it. And I was trying to figure out what that is... now I know that it was parts of us that she was cutting off and putting into that jar. There must have been many other girls who went before us because all of that couldn't have just come from me, my sister, my cousin. It had blood on the side.

She started sewing me together with a needle and some sort of dissolving thread, and I was left with a small hole for urination and another small hole for period flow or future penetration.

'Nothing was done for me'

After I moved to the UK, I visited doctors from the age of nine, up to the age of 30 that I am today, and nothing was done for me. I was seen by a doctor when I was 14 years old when I first started ripping because my body was changing and my skin was very sensitive. It started ripping to make way for the blood to come out. I told my mum that I was ripping, and she asked me if anybody had touched me.

I was taken to the GP, where they confirmed my virginity, and they said it was because of the fact that I was closed. The GP said to me, “here's some Paracetamol, have a great day”. It continued just like that. I missed exams because I fainted in school. My period wasn't coming out. I would get frequent infections and cysts, I needed surgery twice.

When I was older, [after becoming a mother], social services were called on me over fears that my daughter was at risk of FGM because I'm a survivor. No one thought to offer me any support or help. Even during childbirth, I had to beg the doctors to cut me open because I could feel the stitches ripping. It was horrible.

I then started speaking out about FGM on social media - and when I did, my story resonated with a lot of people. I was in contact with survivors across the world. One of them was a Sierra Leonean who explained to me that she went to a doctor who did reconstructive surgery. The difference between us is that she had medicalised FGM by a professional, so they took their time with her and removed everything.

With me, I was fighting, which meant that the woman couldn’t cut as much as she wanted to.

Shamsa Araweelo in hospital,  after her surgery (Credit: Shamsa Araweelo)
Shamsa Araweelo in hospital, in December 2023, after her surgery (Credit: Shamsa Araweelo)

The Sierra Leonean survivor sent me a photo of her vulva, the one that was reconstructed, and I was amazed at the work Dr Dan mon O'Dey, from Luisenhospital Aachen, had done. Dr O’Dey is one of the few surgeons who can perform reconstruction surgery.

For a year, I didn't get in contact with him because of my own personal fears of surgery and the idea of being cut again, I really struggled. I did a lot of research, and I realised that his technique is the only one that is effective. The NHS only offers deinfibulation, which only removes the stitching.

'I've realised how desperate survivors are for surgery'

I crowdfunded to be able to afford the surgery, and finally found the courage to have the operation, which took place on December 5th, 2023 in Germany. I am now recovering. It was a 4.5-hour long operation. To fully heal, it’ll take a year. Even if I did have a deinfibulation in the UK, it would mean that they would open you up until they can see the urethra, and then they stop. The NHS won't repair any of the damage.

When I woke up from the surgery, I could no longer feel that aching pain that I had before. I have a vulva, everything was reconstructed using my own skin and tissue. Since I shared my experience of the reconstruction surgery on social media, I've realised how desperate FGM survivors are for surgery.

I'm urging the UK government and NHS to embrace the expertise of local surgeons and adopt Dr. Odey's innovative reconstruction technique, I want to eradicate the current discriminatory barriers that survivors face within the NHS. Dr. Odey's willingness to share this unique skillset not only signifies a commitment to ending the lifetime complications survivors endure but also underscores the urgency of ensuring every individual has equal access to transformative healthcare in the pursuit of a better quality of life.

Shamsa Araweelo and member of staff at Aachen hospital. (Credit: Shamsa Araweelo)
Shamsa Araweelo with Dr Maryam En-Nosse at Luisenhospital Aachen where she had the operation. (Credit: Shamsa Araweelo)

There are thousands of women who want this surgery. I know these women would never think about doing it to their daughters. I want to start raising money for women to have reconstructive surgery, too, so they can feel how I feel today.

Edited by Ikran Dahir

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