Khadija Gbla was nine years old when her life – and her health – changed forever. Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Khadija was promised a holiday by her mother. Instead, she was taken to a hut where she was circumcised.
It would take years for Khadija to learn the term female genital mutilation (FGM) and even longer to realise what had happened to her.
But today, she’s a prominent speaker, activist and advocate for the 200,000 Australian women and girls who have been impacted by FGM, and the 11 girls at risk every day. Her recent TED talk has been seen by more than a million people. She’s even started her own organisation, No FGM Australia, to stamp out the practice and educate the medical community.
“At the time, I didn’t know that’s what it was,” Khadija says. “FGM sits under this banner of violence against women and girls. It’s the idea that women’s bodies need to be controlled and women can be taught that their sexuality is a threat to the world. When I realised what had happened to me, I needed to do something. I started my activism at home, telling my mum it ends with my generation.
“I have a lot of work ahead of me. But, you know what? I’m the right woman for it.”
Khadija and her family immigrated to Adelaide in 2001, during Sierra Leone’s 13 year civil war. Even though they didn’t choose Australia, for Khadija it’s become her “second chance at life”, providing education, safety and world-class healthcare.
The last point was brought into focus when Khadija was pregnant with her first child. Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world. For women with FGM, pregnancy is high risk and often requires a Caesarean section.
“I would have been one of those women who died as a result of their pregnancy – I wouldn’t have lived to see my 30th birthday,” Khadija says. “But because I lived in Australia, I just had to flash my Medicare card. I had antenatal appointments, I could get a second opinion and I have rights in terms of the care I could expect.”
Power over healthcare
Beyond her experience with FGM, which comes with a raft of health complications of its own, Khadija also has thalassaemia, anemia and chronic fatigue syndrome. Among other impacts the conditions means she’s constantly tired. “I’m in the health system in a major way,” she says.
It’s a challenge managing these competing health concerns but Khadija says it shows the importance of having power over your own healthcare. The decision to move to My Health Record was “a no-brainer”.
“I’m the sort of person who likes to take charge, which is why I signed up to My Health Record in the first place,” she says.
“As a mum, I like that my son’s record can be in the same place as me. For any genetic issues, we can cross-reference our records. He’s only three at the moment so we still have a bunch of immunisation to do but I know he’ll get the care he deserves.”
Supporting migrant communities
Khadija says My Health Record is also beneficial for vulnerable groups. This includes Australia’s multicultural community, which Khadija is a passionate advocate for.
She says younger migrants often have to play the role of interpreter for their parents and older relatives when they engage with healthcare providers. My Health Record makes it easier for Khadija and her peers to help their parents with their healthcare needs, providing a point of access for Australians with limited English to exercise control and communicate their needs.
“My generation is ready to support our parents in this,” Khadija says. “This is a huge benefit for the community because it’s a whole new way of doing things. Anything that helps us get appropriate care while streamlining how we navigate the medical system will reduce vulnerability. It can be quite a struggle – so this is a win for our community.”
This individual control is what is central to My Health Record for Khadija: “All of this comes back to power and I think that’s the keyword for me. I have power over my information.”