‘I know they will come for her’: Australian toddler at risk of genital mutilation
November 23, 2015
Fatoumata Binta Conteh is like any other three-year-old Australian child. She’s full of questions, playful, cranky when things don’t go her way.
During the day she carries around a doll with brown curly hair that she calls her baby; at night carefully packing her into the original plastic wrapping so she doesn’t spoil. Her favourite game is hide-and-seek. She always wants to sleep next to her mum.
But unlike other Australian little girls, Fatoumata Binta is at constant risk of being forced to undergo female genital mutilation.
So much so that she and her mother have fled the clutches of relatives in Guinea who are demanding the barbaric procedure.
From the pale green concrete hut where she’s in hiding in Sierra Leone, she’s one of 3 million girls across Africa under threat this year of being cut.
While Fatoumata Binta has never been to Australia, she is an Australian citizen by descent on her father’s side. As such, advocates say, we have a responsibility to protect her.
So far, her young mother, Fatoumata Diarriou Bah, has thwarted repeated attempts by relatives to disfigure the toddler with a knife or razor blade. But the 24-year-old fears her husband’s family will try to take her daughter again.
She’s so afraid that she won’t leave her child’s side. Her last hope is the Australian government, who she is pleading with to help her.
“They have tried to take the child away from me before,” Ms Bah says. “They want to do this to her, but I don’t want it to happen. It’s not good for her. I’m scared. I can’t leave her alone.”
In this part of the world female genital mutilation is almost universal; more than nine out of 10 women are victims. Known as cutting, it involves the partial or total removal of external genitals of girls from as young as a few days old up to puberty.
Psychological problems and physical complications are common. Some are left infertile or have complications with childbirth, other die from the procedure.
The reasons for FGM are complex. Some believe the ancient ritual controls women’s sexuality. It’s rooted in social acceptance, ideals of purity and marriage ability. The World Health Organisation estimates more than 125 million girls and women in 29 counties have been cut.
Fatoumata Binta’s father, an African-Australian, has disappeared. He was last known to be living in Adelaide, but left the country last year and hasn’t been heard from in six months. Since he vanished his family has pressured Ms Bah to have the toddler circumcised.
She’s refused; she won’t allow her child to suffer the way she did. But in a country with the second-highest rate of female genital mutilation in the world, a mother’s permission is not required.
When relatives recently tried to take Fatoumata Binta by force, Ms Bah grabbed her and fled. Crossing the border into Sierra Leone, mother and child made their way back to her hometown, five hours drive from the capital of a country ripped apart by civil war.
They’re now out of sight in the concrete compound Ms Bah grew up in and where she was herself cut as a four year old. .
The child is not safe here, either. Ms Bah’s mother, her four sisters, their daughters – Fatoumata Binta’s cousins – have all been cut. Her elderly father still believes his granddaughter should be circumcised, as is customary in the West African nation.
She not only fears her husband’s family will find them. She’s petrified that no one will stop them next time they come.
“I don’t know where my husband is in the world, he left us,” she says. “His brothers and sisters and brother’s wife, everybody in the family is trying to find me, they try to take her away from me. Every day I receive some message saying they are coming. I know they will come for her.”
Ms Bah is appealing to the federal government to bring her daughter to safety. But as the child’s only guardian and an African national a question mark hangs over their future together.
Melbourne advocate Paula Ferrari, who co-founded No FGM Australia, has advised Ms Bah to travel to the Canadian embassy in Sierra Leone and once there ask to make contact with Australian officials. The nearest Australian embassy in Ghana is more than 1000 kilometres away.
“We have a responsibility as a country to protect this girl. She is protected by Australian law,” Ms Ferrari says. “The mother is entitled to seek asylum based on the fact that she has been subjected to violence based on her gender. Female genital mutilation is an extreme form of gender persecution, it’s violence against women.”
In response to questions from Fairfax Media, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was attempting to contact Ms Bah to offer “appropriate consular assistance.”
Ms Bah’s older brother, Ibrahima Bah, lives in China and sends a small amount of money back to her each month. But he fears time is running out for his sister and niece. Ibrahima says the “clever, beautiful baby” will likely be taken if no one intervenes.
“I am so worried for her … they have nowhere to go,” he says. “We come from the Muslim Fullani tribe, no women there have any say. Even my father doesn’t have a problem about that. He says when they come for the baby – give them.
“My sister has learnt about the circumcisions and she knows that it is not good. But the family keep trying to force her. They are chasing her and she has no rights if they want to take the baby.”
Ms Bah doesn’t know what to do. Her daughter is too young to understand what is happening. She cries because she’s not allowed to go to school with the other children, her mother fearing she’ll be snatched by relatives if she’s not there to watch over her.
“I need help, I don’t have anything,” Ms Bah says. “I want her to get away from here but I don’t want to lose my child.”
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