'I was mutilated at 16 but I won't let it define me'

2 weeks ago 23

Valerie LomariImage source, Valerie Lolomari

Image caption,

Valerie wants to share her story of female genital mutilation to encourage other victims to seek help

Growing up in Nigeria, Valerie Lomari's grandmother was the only person who had ever shown her love.

Aged 16, she was taken by the elderly woman to another village, where she was mutilated without warning.

Now aged 52, Valerie still lives with the emotional and physical trauma from female genital mutilation (FGM) and is determined to eradicate it.

The mother-of-three helps FGM survivors in Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire and London.

Here, in her own words, she explains how she learned to forgive her grandmother and live without shame.

This article contains descriptions some readers may find upsetting

'My grandmother said we were going on holiday'

Image source, Valerie Lolomari

Image caption,

Valerie was taken by her grandmother at the age of 16 to a village, where she was subjected to female genital mutilation

When I was born in Lagos, Nigeria, my mum was only 17 and she didn't have much support. She took me to my father's family house and I was raised by my grandmother. She was old and she had a shop to run so I had to do everything in the house.

Aged 11, my grandfather died and I moved to a new city to my relative's house. I became a slave girl and I was passed around to different families. I didn't feel as if anyone truly cared about me and I missed my grandmother.

When I turned 16 she came to visit and said we were going on a holiday. I was very excited and I packed my luggage. On the way, my grandmother said we had to stop to go and see someone in this village I had never been to before.

Image source, Valerie Lolomari

Image caption,

Valerie felt betrayed by her grandmother because she was the only person Valerie had ever loved

As I walked through the gates of the house, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. A tall, scary looking woman let us in and locked the door. I saw knives, razors and a bowl with oil laid out on the table, with two other women sitting and staring at me. I asked my grandmother why we were there. She thought it was making me clean and preparing me for marriage.

I realised what was going to happen and decided to put up a fight. I wasn't going to make it easy for them so I screamed and kicked with all my power. Before I knew it, I was on the floor and they pinned me down. I felt this intensely sharp pain and I thought I was going to die. I screamed until I couldn't scream anymore. I saw my grandmother standing in the corner and locked eyes with her. She was crying.

Media caption,

It’s estimated one in 20 girls and women in the world have undergone some form of FGM

I felt betrayed by my grandmother. She was the only person I loved and she had let this happen to me. I was made to lay down on the floor for a couple of hours for my bleeding to stop. I would have taken my own life if I had been left alone. After two days of being in that house, my grandmother took me to where she lived and I stayed there for some time, experiencing infections and multiple health concerns because of the cutting.

'I told my husband everything'

At the end of the summer, I went back to school and got into university. I kept what happened a secret because I was ashamed, I thought it was my fault. During my final year on campus, when I was 26, I met my husband Tony, who came over from London to visit his sister. I did not say much to him because I was so nervous but I told him about everything that happened to me. I wanted to push him away because I didn't think I was deserving of love, but he did not judge me.

Within a year, we got married and moved to the UK. Even when we got married, I found it hard to speak to him, I was still so nervous. I used to talk to him from another room or I would write things down. He had to gain my trust but he believed in me more than I believed in myself.

Being intimate has always been difficult for me. My clitoris has been taken away so I don't feel anything and sometimes it makes me feel like I am not a complete woman. But I know I am blessed to be with someone I love.

Unfortunately we suffered multiple miscarriages as a result of infections and they took me back to my childhood and my pain. After the fifth one, my husband persuaded me to go to the doctor, but I was terrified to let anyone examine me. I even thought I might get arrested. But my GP was so supportive and signposted me to an FGM specialist.

I am so thankful that we went on to have three amazing children together, two girls and a boy. The births were so painful though and for the first week or so I was unable to bond with the children because I was nursing the wounds.

Image source, Valerie Lolomari

Image caption,

Valerie and her husband Tony have had three children, but they experienced multiple miscarriages as a result of the FGM causing infections

After having my third child, I found the courage to talk to my grandmother about what had happened. I booked a flight and went back home. I told her everything I had been through and she broke down. I understand now that she did it out of love, she thought it was what was best for me. She asked me to speak out about it and make sure people know the truth. That was the birth of my advocacy.

I started to tell people about what happened to me and other women confided in me that they had also gone through this. Five years ago, I decided to set up Women of Grace, an organisation that supports FGM survivors, and we have helped 168 of them so far. We host peer support groups, we create safe spaces and we send women for counselling. We educate families and I speak in schools about the dangers of FGM. It is a violation and needs to be stopped through education. Children need to know that their bodies belong to them.

I faced resistance at the start because the village where I live in Essex is predominantly white. FGM mainly affects migrant communities in the UK, but it can also affect people who have lived here for years. The problem has got worse here since the pandemic. It's often done by a loved one, behind closed doors. They think it's normal and it's part of their culture or tradition. There's a lot of shame and stigma and many girls don't want to talk negatively about their family or their community. I have printed leaflets about FGM in different languages so I can reach out to women in all communities.

Image source, Valerie Lolomari

Image caption,

Valerie was invited to New York to give a speech about FGM to a UN conference

I am proud to be an ambassador for Healthwatch Essex, a group that aims to educate others about living with trauma. I recently gave a speech about FGM at a United Nations conference in New York. I thought to myself about the days when I was younger, being a slave girl, then to find myself in New York, talking in front of so many people. I was very tearful, knowing I could use my pain and my voice to help others.

A lot of things were taken away from me and I lived in pain, shame and loneliness for a very long time. FGM is a life sentence and I am still living with the physical and emotional trauma. But I refuse to let it define me. I am strong and I am loved and I won't stop telling my story until this barbaric practice no longer exists.

If you are affected by any of the issues in this article, including feelings of despair, you can find details of organisations that can help via the BBC Action Line.

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