“I think I became a nurse because I was so angry about what had happened to me. I wanted to be able to help other women. But once I qualified I just wanted to leave, to get away.”
Grace is 37 years old. She was born in Botswana to a South African mother and Zimbabwean father. In 1996 her family moved to South Africa where she completed her schooling and went on to study nursing. It was her nursing diploma that allowed her to move to Ireland in 2010.
When she was nine years old, she was taken from her bed during the night and transported across the border into South Africa. “The thing that is most clear for me is the sound of the drums. I remember the cold, the ground was hard and it was very cold. And the pain. Ai, the pain, it is impossible to forget.”
She is speaking about female circumcision.
She is a tall woman, almost regal, and she holds herself stiffly, as though afraid to relax. She speaks clearly, telling her story in fits and starts.
I can tell that this is not a story that she has told often, the words don’t come easily and she stops often in the telling, her expression by turns bemused and angry.
“They took me while I was sleeping, I woke up in the back of a car. We travelled for many many kilometres. Each time I woke, I would drink from a cup and I would sleep again.”
Grace’s maternal grandmother belongs to the Venda tribe in South Africa. They are one of the only tribes who still practice female circumcision in that country, and Grace’s grandmother, being an elder of the tribe, was the one to perform the procedure on her. The thing that is most difficult for her to come to terms with is the complicity of her mother.
They are women,” she says, “How could they do this to their child? I was sick for many months afterwards. The pain was unbearable. I could not eat, I could not sleep. I would cry all the time.”
She received no medical care during or after the ordeal, she stayed with her grandmother who tended to her while her mother returned to Botswana to work. She says she was bewildered and felt very alone. She didn’t know her grandmother and felt that she was left among strangers. When she returned home to Botswana some months later, her mother would not talk about it and Grace withdrew in anger and confusion.
We talk for a while about traditions and culture, but she is dismissive. Her parents were not traditional, she insists. Her father was well educated, as was her mother.
I ask if her mother had undergone circumcision and she nods her head. “Yes,” she says, “That is why I cannot understand why she allowed it with me!” She is emphatic.
She calls it a ‘barbaric’ practice, her word. Her anger is palpable and it’s still raw.
“They held me down while I screamed,” she says, “and all the time the drums were beating. She cut me with a razor! A white hot pain!” her voice is raised now.
“I have been in Ireland for eight years now, and there is a big African community here. You think that people who have moved away from Africa to start a new life in Europe will leave the harmful things from the past behind. But this is not always true. There are many who still believe in the old ways, and too many children, little girls, are still being cut.”
When I ask whether circumcisions are being performed here in Ireland, she shakes her head, “I do not know, but there are many who take the children back ‘home’ to cut them. It would not be surprising if it happens here too, but the one’s that I have met, they were taken out of Ireland.”
Grace has never married, she says she never will. She has not been able to have close relationships. She has one or two female friends, but says she still feels isolated. Her contact with her parents is minimal, she says they are like strangers to her, she still feels betrayed.
Violence against women takes many forms, and undoubtedly, female circumcision is one of them. It’s a complex issue, with ingrained cultural beliefs and overtones. It is generally performed on young girls by other women, often someone well known to them. It is a rite of passage in many cultures and performed in order to make girl children ready for marriage. Women feel pressured to continue the cultural tradition with their female children in order to be accepted socially. The fear of being rejected by the community and by family is very real.
The practice is strongly tied to cultural ideals of femininity and modesty – and beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour for women. It is believed by many communities that cutting girls in this way will keep them pure by reducing the libido and taking away pleasure from the sexual act. Many who have undergone the procedure feel excruciating physical pain during intercourse, deterring them from voluntarily engaging in sexual activity.
When Grace and I part ways, I am left with the residue of her anger, and the memory of the many women I have known over the years who have suffered similarly.