Ujuni Ahmed, 32, was a teenager when he understood what had happened to him as a child. The conversation at the Helsinki Girls' House changed the direction of my whole life.
He remembers the pain even though he was only 2 years old. It cannot be forgotten. Ahmed had traveled from his home in Mogadishu, Somalia, to the other side of the Gulf of Aden, Yemen. Relatives lived in the country. There, a local “professional” mutilated his genitals.
Afterwards, an adult relative cared for the girl and made sure nothing went wrong. That is what is happening. After mutilation, many common things, such as going to the bathroom, are painful for a long time. At worst, the procedure can be followed by severe inflammation or even death.
Ujuni Ahmed is perhaps Finland's best-known face in anti-mutilation work.
Photo: Joonas Salo
I decided to talk about my experience, so I can show that I have become mutilated, but it does not define my future.
Ahmed survived. At the age of 3, he moved to Finland with his family. Today, human rights activist and executive director of Fenix Helsinki ry travels around the country educating people about girl mutilation. Ahmed is on good terms with his family. She understands that girls are mutilated by a lack of knowledge. That is why talking about the subject is so important.
- I decided to talk about my experience, so I can show that I have become mutilated, but it does not define my future. By my example, someone else can dare to tell about it, he says.
Circumcision of girls and women, or genital mutilation, is an ancient tradition. During the procedure, the clitoris or labia are mutilated either completely or partially. Sometimes the vagina may be sutured completely closed, leaving only a small hole in the urine and blood. Anesthesia is rarely used. Traditionally, a mutilated girl is clean and socially acceptable.
Today, mutilation occurs mainly in Africa and to some extent in the Middle East and South Asia. The issue became topical in Finland with the immigration of the 1990s. In practice, the phenomenon is not new in Europe either. As early as the 19th century, European women had their clitoris removed under the guise of, among other things, excessive masturbation and “madness”.
In Finland, genital mutilation is a crime that meets the criteria for aggravated assault. Parliament is considering a citizens' initiative, which would separately prohibit mutilation, as in the other Nordic countries. A separate law would be seen as a message to practitioners of the tradition, but it has also raised fears that more and more cases would move underground.
Criminal reports of mutilation are hardly made. In Finland, only one case has been dealt with in court. Cases are also rare in child protection and school health care. At the time of this case, there were no known cases of child protection in Helsinki in the next few years.
In youth work, sexual health and sexual violence workers are prepared to talk to victims of mutilation and those at risk. However, case prevention is challenging because the girl does not always know about the procedure in advance or knows how to question it.
According to an estimate completed in 2019, 650–3100 girls live in Finland under the threat of circumcision.
However, mutilation happens - even for Finns. According to an estimate completed by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) in 2019, 650–3,100 girls live in Finland at risk of circumcision. However, according to the authors of the report, the correct estimate may move only in the tens. In 2017, hospitals began to compile statistics on the number of circumcised mothers. For two consecutive years, there were a total of 285 women who had been circumcised. Of these, 26 had undergone circumcision opening surgery. Figures for the HUS area are missing from the data.
The issue was also asked for the first time in last year's School Health Survey. Of the 35,000 secondary school students who responded, 80, or 0.2 percent, reported being circumcised. 51 of them were born in Finland. In addition, 135 girls reported that they could not say whether they had been circumcised.
Ujuni Ahmed is perhaps Finland's best-known face in the fight against mutilation.
Photo: Joonas Salo
However, there were uncertainties in the responses that led to the question of mutilation no longer being raised in the next School Health Survey. In a previous interview with IS, THL's research manager Reija Klemetti said that schoolchildren do not yet understand the issue well enough. It manifested itself, for example, as illogicality in the countries of birth of the respondents' parents. According to Klemet, the theme should first be better taken into account in basic education.
But what happens while waiting? Ahmed is worried that more girls will be under the knife while the problem is balled around Finland.
- The most critical issue is to provide in-service training for primary and early childhood education teachers on how to identify, address and prevent mutilation and honor violence, and how to talk about it with families. You also need to be able to assess when to make a child protection declaration, he emphasizes.
It has been more than a decade since Ahmed gave his first interview from his own mutilation experience. However, the conversation seems to him still stagnating. Mutilation is still surrounded by a culture of silence. If all survivors used their voices, a new me too movement could emerge.
However, involving survivors is not easy. In 2017, Fenix Helsinki made a report in which four girls born in Finland and experienced circumcision were interviewed. The mutilation was performed on them at the age of 6-9 in Egypt, Somalia, Iran and Syria. Initially, there were several interviewees, but many withdrew their participation.
They are united by shame. Finnish society no longer sees you as a woman, but as a victim.
- They are united by shame. Finnish society no longer sees you as a woman, but as a victim. In turn, in the communities where women come from, a woman who talks about her sexual experiences is seen as shameful.
The report also interviewed mothers about how they had been told about circumcision by the authorities. One woman recounted how the nurse had been left for a long time to stare at her lower head without commenting on the circumcision. In the second case, the woman had not been asked anything about circumcision during the four pregnancies.
- In many cases, mutilation seems to be a greater taboo for Finnish professionals than for these women themselves.
According to Ahmed, the subject is wary of culturally perceived reasons, even though the survivors approach the same methods and obligations as they face victims of sexual violence in general. In particular, the child needs to create a safe space, say the experience together and make it clear that he is not putting anyone in trouble.
- It is negligent if violence against a child with an immigrant background is not addressed on as low a threshold as even for a native Finnish child.
Even if the problem seems difficult to professionals, reporting the violence cannot be left to the child.
- There are situations in Finland where a 9-year-old girl goes on a summer vacation and sits at the desk in the autumn, mutilated. He can’t talk about it with anyone and after all, he still has time to study, Ahmed sighs.
Seida Sohrabi hopes that immigrant women would dare to talk publicly about the violence they face.
Photo: Ville Honkonen
Seida Sohrabi, a resource teacher and Middle East expert, is also calling for an update on primary school teaching.
- Biology and social studies lessons need to be supplemented with sections on equality and sexual freedom, Sohrabi says.
- When everyone raises the issue, it is no longer taboo.
Sohrabi was born in a refugee camp in Iraq, where his Kurdish parents fled Iran. The family moved to Vaasa when Sohrab was 5 years old. Today, Sohrabi, who has a master's degree in political science, specializes in honor-related violence, among other things.
He has met several survivors of mutilation. One encounter from Oulu in particular has been remembered. A woman in her thirties left the training session crying as the conversation turned to female genital mutilation.
He later said he had not been able to combine his symptoms with mutilation.
- He later said that he had not been able to combine his symptoms with mutilation. His stomach had swollen due to the menstrual blood that had accumulated there. Having sex was really painful and not enjoyable.
Sohrabi emphasizes that mutilation of girls and women is something that must be taken seriously in Finland. According to him, one should dare to ask about this in the School Health Survey already because it would increase parents' knowledge that the situation in Finland is being monitored.
- An act must be boldly brought up and condemned without targeting a specific person or group of people.
She also recalls how important it is that women with an immigrant background dare to talk about the subject.
- Violence such as mutilation must not be allowed here. If it is not addressed now, it will not be long before it explodes in the hands.
Sohrabi admits that bringing a cat to the table requires courage.
- There are human networks in Finland that systematically seek to silence immigrant women who speak on the subject.
According to Solomie Tesholm, the work against mutilation has yielded clear results during his eight-year career at the Alliance for Human Rights.
Photo: Kaisa Rautaheimo / HS
According to Solomie Teshome, an expert at the Alliance for Human Rights, the most important thing in changing attitudes towards mutilation is small group meetings and face-to-face discussions, where mutilation can be treated confidentially in one's own language. The groups also provide information on legislation and the health effects of mutilation.
- Despite the fact that people come from countries where tradition is practiced, some get to know about girl mutilation and its disadvantages for the first time from me. Even if they have gone through mutilation themselves. Some themselves don’t know if they’ve gone through genital mutilation, especially if there are no clear physical signs of mutilation, he says.
Teshome believes that over the past eight years he has worked for the Human Rights Alliance, attitudes in communities where mutilation is or has been practiced have clearly become more negative toward tradition.
Without continuous work, however, the changes will not be permanent.
- More training is needed for social and health professionals so that they can better help girls at risk and increase the well-being of women who have undergone mutilation.
If there is a suspicion of mutilation or a threat of such mutilation to a child living in Finland, professionals and authorities have an obligation to raise the matter and make a child protection report and report it to the police. However, according to Teshome, this does not always happen.
The groups have shown that, for example, a woman who has recently given birth in Finland and comes from a country where mutilation is common has not been talked about in a clinic or maternity hospital. On the other hand, those women who have been asked about the matter have said that the professional approach was the right one.
- We are concerned that professionals are not getting enough attention, even though it is their duty. More effective interprofessional cooperation is also important to protect girls.
In addition to the Human Rights Alliance and other organizations, THL in particular carries out mutilation prevention work, such as informing professionals, bringing girls and women into care, and reaching out to immigrant communities.
According to Ujuni Ahmed, the responsibility for children and work is still too much on the shoulders of organizations at the moment.
- This is not a disappearing problem. We don’t need projects but permanent solutions and measures to protect girls, she says.
- We maintain tradition if we are silent and do not correct our mistakes.
If you suspect violence against a child, contact your local child welfare emergency number.
Circumcision of girls and women, ie genital mutilation
Genital mutilation refers to the partial or complete removal or damage of a woman's external genitals. In English, the procedure is termed FGM (female genital Manipulation).
There are about 200 million girls and women in the world who have undergone mutilation. Three million girls are at risk of being mutilated each year.
Most often, girls' genitals are mutilated at the age of 4-10.
No religion requires female genital mutilation. The reasons behind the tradition vary between regions and cultures.
In Finland, 650–3100 girls live under the threat of circumcision (THL, 2019).
Source: National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) and World Health Organization WHO.