Above - Me with Hibo Wardere at the Houses of Parliament exhibition, October 2016

In June 2015 I exhibited three portraits of women who are survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM), telling the powerful, individual stories of these women through pictures and words.

In January - March 2016 the three portraits were shown again during a touring exhibition of Waltham Forest libraries, and the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, along with accompanying talks by the women featured in the portraits. In April 2016 I was commissioned to paint another portrait of a survivor for an FGM conference, and in October 2016 all four portraits were displayed for a week at the Houses of Parliament for an exhibition arranged by the Croydon Clinical Commissioning Group.

My original 2015 exhibition was featured in The Telegraph: www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11646290/FGM-Can-art-help-curb-female-genital-mutilation.html

Above - me with Alimatu, Hibo, Leyla and Stella Creasy MP for Walthamstow at the original 2015 exhibition at St Barnabas church, Walthamstow.

Stories From FGM Survivors - how the exhibition began

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is when a girl’s genitals are either partially or totally removed for non-medical reasons. Traditionally the procedure is carried out by a female member of the community, who is not a trained doctor. The instruments used are often unsterilized razor blades or knifes. The clitoris is sliced off, but there are additional stages - the labia and vaginal lips can be cut off, and sometimes more cuts are made further up inside the womb. The jagged wounds are then roughly sewn up, with a small opening left for urinating. All this is carried out without anaesthetic. Girls sometimes bleed to death during or days after the procedure. Women can haemorrhage and die after sexual intercourse or giving birth. It’s common for infections and further complications to occur throughout adult life. In addition to the physical effects, the psychological impact can be devastating, affecting self confidence and adult relationships.

I’d heard of FGM and thought I knew what it was, but I learned more when I attended an FGM event at Waltham Forest Town Hall last summer, where I first heard Hibo Wardere talk openly and graphically about the practice. I was shocked to hear of the many FGM stages, and how complicit the families are - especially the mothers of the girls. I was invited as I'd created a black and white illustration for the flyer advertising the event. Hibo's speech was incredibly powerful and moving, and made me laugh and cry. After the talk I met Hibo and presented her with the illustration in a frame.

I was so moved by her speech, and I was angry and upset. Why is this barbaric practice still happening? As a woman and as a human being I just felt compelled to help somehow. But what could I do? As an artist I thought maybe this could be my way of raising awareness about FGM. I began to think about painting portraits of Hibo and her friends from the FGM community.

The theme for the 2015 E17 Art Trail was "Storytelling” and I wanted to tell these women's stories. These incredible women are survivors, not victims. FGM does not define them. They are mothers, wives, daughters, friends, successful career women. I've painted them looking away from the darkness and towards the light. It's been an honour and a privilege to meet them and help share their stories.

In the UK FGM has been a criminal offence since 1985. However under this legislation, taking girls who were settled in the UK abroad to undergo FGM was not considered a criminal offence. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 was introduced to close this loophole and came into effect in 2004. It makes it illegal to practice FGM in the UK, and also illegal to take girls who are British nationals or permanent residents of the UK abroad for FGM - whether or not it is lawful in that country. There is a penalty of up to 14 years in prison and, or, a fine.

Here are the four women's stories.

Hibo Wardere's Story

Hibo was born in Somalia. Aged 18 she came to the UK and now calls Walthamstow her home. She won a “Love Your Borough” 2015 award in recognition of her campaigning, and has been appointed FGM Coordinator at Waltham Forest Council.

When she was seven her mother held her down while a woman from the village cut her with a razor blade which was still covered in dried blood from the previous girl. Hibo says “from that moment on, she was no longer my mother.”

“What you go through is unimaginable pain that will last a life time. The only way I can compare FGM after it's been done is like when an earthquake happens and the tsunami follows. For me the tsunami was my emotions which I was drowning in and no one to help me swim through it. As a seven year old who has gone through FGM let me tell you how this horrendous, barbaric, medieval practice has left me with a life sentence of pain.

Imagine telling your husband that you cannot feel anything when you are making love, because that has been taken away from you. You don't have a connection to your own part of your body because they ripped your clitoris. Imagine been told that you can't have children because of damage they have done to your reproductive organs. You also suffer with constant infections, more than the normal woman because they have cut off completely your vaginal lips that protect from germs entering you. It's like your eye lids being ripped off and you suffer with dryness too. Imagine even after 10 years of being with your partner you still experience pain when you are love-making. Imagine having a baby, and because you don't have the vaginal lips that would have expanded when you are giving birth you end up being ripped in all directions, and you are also in danger of haemorrhaging too.

This beautiful country that I call my home today and my children who were born here, all of them...I cannot imagine this taking place in this country, and the government isn't doing enough. I just want to go to schools and educate the staff by giving them a better understanding of FGM. Together we can achieve our main objective which is to prevent FGM happening to innocent young girls."

Leyla Hussein's Story

Leyla was born in Somalia. She was cut when she was seven years old. Four women held her down while a fifth cut her. Leyla screamed for her mother to help her, before passing out.

Leyla is a trained Psychotherapist and a multi-award winning campaigner on FGM and gender rights including Cosmopolitan Ultimate Campaigner Women of the Year Award 2010, the True Honour Award 2012 by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Right organisation, and the World Peace and Prosperity Foundation award 2013. She was included in the BBC 100 women list of 2013 and voted 6th in the Woman’s Hour 2014 Power List. Leyla co-founded Daughters Of Eve who are working to protect girls and young women at risk from FGM. She also advises the UK-wide Tackling FGM Initiative, worked as a consultant for the international End FGM Social Change Campaign and is Chief Executive of Hawa’s Haven. Her e-petition 'Stop FGM in the UK Now' gathered over 100,000 signatures, triggering a debate in Parliament on FGM in the UK.

Leyla is a Community Facilitator at Manor Gardens, where she now runs the Dahlia Project which she set up in 2013, the only counselling service for FGM survivors in the UK. Her documentary on FGM in the UK “The Cruel Cut” was shown on Channel 4 and was nominated for a BAFTA in 2014.

"My struggle has focused on FGM, a crime that affects 125 million women in the world. It has focused on FGM because in the UK alone, there are 170,000 women who have undergone it, and tens of thousands of girls at risk every year. FGM for me represents all that is wrong about the way this world treats women; as a commodity.

I refuse to be judged only by how good a wife or a mother I will make. There is nothing wrong with either of those roles, but a woman should be allowed to choose neither. I refuse to give up my basic human rights just because I have a vagina. I refuse to nod and say 'things are getting better'. Because I have the privilege to speak, I have to roar. I will continue to roar for as long as there are women who have no voice."

View “The Cruel Cut” www.channel4.com/programmes/the-cruel-cut

Alimatu Dimonekene's Story

Alimatu was born in Sierra Leone. She was cut when she was 16. Her six year old sister and two year old cousin were cut at the same time, in different rooms. She vividly recalls the day she went to her Grandmother’s house, assuming it was just a family visit. Then she heard the sound of drums outside which she recognised as part of the FGM ceremony, and realised what was about to happen. She was stripped naked and held down by members of her extended family, while a woman from the community (who was drunk) cut her with a knife. As part of the ritual her open wounds were daubed with a herbal ointment, her legs bound together with cloth, and she was left alone for days to heal.

Alimatu says that afterwards “all the colour went out from my life”. She had been well educated, with parents who told her she could go to university and achieve whatever she wanted in life. After the FGM she questioned why she had been educated and given a taste of another life, if her family had always intended for her to undergo the tradition of FGM. “What was the point? It was cruel.” One of her cousins bled to death not long after she underwent FGM.

Alimatu came to the UK to study and is a Third World and Development Studies with Sociology graduate from Middlesex University. She lives in north London and has dedicated her professional life to raising awareness of FGM and domestic violence, focusing on ensuring that girls are treated with dignity and compassion when accessing services. Winner of the True Hero Award 2015 for her work in tackling FGM, Alimatu has used her experiences as a FGM survivor in working extensively with agencies such as UN Women (UK), the Home Office, Met Police, NHS, NSPCC and other authorities in safeguarding girls and women at risk from the practice.

Alimatu is a founder of ProjectACEi, an action group in Enfield that helps facilitate greater working relationships between professionals and communities to end FGM. Through her organisation she voices the pain and speaks for women and campaigns to protect girls.

Lucy Njomo's story

Lucy was born in Cameroon. She lived happily at home until aged 13, when she and her twin sister Mary were both taken away to have the FGM procedure. After their FGM, Lucy never saw her sister again. Tragically, Mary died soon afterwards from a huge infection. Her family were never told where Mary was buried. The local community believed that because she had died after the FGM Mary must have been wicked and "a witch", and therefore if Lucy or any other member of her family visited her grave, her evil spirit would seep out and infect the family with bad luck. Lucy misses her twin sister to this day and continues to fight against FGM in her honour.

Soon after, Lucy had an arranged marriage to an older man who was physically and emotionally abusive to her. After moving to the UK they had three daughters, and Lucy ensured that none of them had FGM. After the passing of her husband in 2003, having endured FGM and years of abuse and conflict around FGM, Lucy found the strength and courage to carve out a new life for herself and her growing daughters, and now grandchildren.

In 2007 Lucy set up the charity African Youth Development Association in her home town of Croydon. The charity helps FGM survivors like herself receive the emotional and practical support and advice they need, as well as supporting communities in Croydon to embrace cultural diversity without practising FGM.

“We need to break the cultural silence and find new ways to talk about FGM. This art exhibition gives us the opportunity to raise awareness of the many survivors of FGM who have to live with the lifelong consequences every day. I am happy to be part of this exciting exhibition so that my story can effect real change and reach out to others who are suffering.”