Khadija Gbla's FGM Story Is Changing Africa & Australia
*Trigger warning: the subject of this article is activism against female genital mutilation.
Khadija Gbla is charismatic, intelligent, inspiring and energetic, especially when you hear her speak. The list of accolades on her personal website is dizzying: she’s an award-winning speaker, facilitator and cross-cultural consultant who is using her unique TCK perspective to fill chasms in Australia’s cultural landscape. Even though she is a passionate advocate of black rights, women’s rights, refugee rights and raising awareness about mental health, we at TCK TOWN are interested in (and inspired by) her activism against FGM (female genital mutilation).
Khadija is an African & Australian TCK, born in Sierra Leone. When war erupted after she turned three, her family fled to Gambia, where she lived for the remainder of her childhood. As a teenager, after being granted refugee status, Khadija arrived in Adelaide, Australia. “If Sierra Leone was hell, Australia was going to be heaven. I’ll never forget when we landed on the 9th of June, 2001, at Adelaide Airport. I wanted to kiss the ground. Australia was an opportunity to live a full life.”
In interviews she speaks of how the bubble burst quickly, as her TCK transition was difficult and complex. The ignorance and racism she experienced lead to illness and depression. “Here, I was called a black monkey. I went to school and was told to go back to where I came from. People wouldn’t sit next to me on the bus. Even last year, when I went to the supermarket to buy milk, I was called a black c... by some white dude. We came to Australia for safety. There is no war here, but with racism there’s a new form of insecurity.”
In particular, as an adult FGM survivor, her experience with the Australian health system after she became pregnant with her first child was a terrible ordeal, fraught with misunderstandings, a lack of knowledge and inadequate support from the local staff, resulting in great anxiety and fear on her part.
The stats are grim. Over 200,000 Australian women (almost 11 girls each day), are estimated to have either experienced FGM or be at high risk of undergoing FGM, but there is a lack of understanding on the ground. Even worse, the issue is not currently included in Australian medical curriculums, and medical professionals have to choose to opt in for supplementary courses if they do wish to educate themselves on this issue.
FGM survivors are extremely likely to have high-risk pregnancies due to complications that might have arisen from infections, scar tissue, fibroids or cysts. If Khadija hadn’t taken the initiative to educate herself on her own health, she could have experienced an extremely traumatic delivery. After several confusing appointments, she spoke up, informing her midwife about potential issues that might arise before, during and after the birth because of her history. "If I had not disclosed that I've had FGM, I would have gone through my antenatal appointments and gone to have my baby, started pushing, and the baby would have got stuck with nobody knowing why".
Khadija’s cross-cultural heritage and this extremely difficult experience during her pregnancy empowered her to become a bridge that could promote understanding in both directions, for each of the communities she identified with. Watch her work and her talent is undeniable: she has a compelling ability to translate successfully between her two very different cultures.
She used this skill to become a peer educator, speaking on behalf of her FGM survivor community, for South Australia’s Women’s Heath Statewide program. Here, she was able to enlighten health professionals about FGM (What is it? Where does it take place? What cultural beliefs influence it?). Although she was initially ostracised by some of those within her own refugee community, Khadija confidently dedicated her life to this cause, and has now worked for almost 20 years in this particular arena.
Remarkably, her activism doesn’t stop there. She is a powerhouse, and runs numerous initiatives, including offering advice on Australian policy, organizing welcome camps for newly-arrived refugees, and continuing to educate her African and Australian TCK community about sexual and mental health.
Khadija went on to be named Young South Australian of the Year, Young African Australian of the Year, one of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Activists To Watch and most recently, was a recipient of the Instyle and Audi Women of Style The Advocate for Acceptance Human Rights Award.
Khadija Gbla’s story is a victory for all of us, as TCKs. Her voice and her work have shown her local community how important it is to embrace cultural diversity, diverse opinions and outlooks. She has proven that our unique TCK viewpoints can not only change lives, but save them.
How has your TCK background helped you better understand cultural gaps in your local community? Have you ever began any initiatives to meet these needs? Comment below and share your stories!
Check out Khadija’s very cool (but tough to hear) TED talk about her FGM experience. The topic is heavy, but her humour and her candour will help you navigate through it!
In this podcast episode, Khadija speaks about TCK refugee identities and the challenges they face in a bold, charismatic and interesting way.
Here are more details about her own TCK journey. In this interview, hear her speak about how her views both ostracised her from her home/first culture and her local Australian community/her new home.