In 2010, two British survivors of female genital mutilation (FGM) and I started a charity called Daughters of Eve in order to mainstream the issue and change how it is addressed. FGM has been a criminal offence in the UK since 1985, but it took another 20 years for it to be illegal to take girls abroad to undergo FGM in the 2003 Act. Countless young girls were taken out of the country – and some to London – to undergo FGM. However, as children, we had little power to do anything, while those that were charged with safeguarding us ignored the issue. The suffering of so many young women and girls that I saw growing up – and still do – is the basis of why I left the civil service in order to join the campaign against FGM. Growing up in the UK and travelling to Africa every year, where the largest population of women and girls affected by FGM live, I have had a unique insight into the campaign against it.
The recent episode of BBC’s Casualty which featured a strong FGM storyline was developed with the assistance of Daughters of Eve and three young people from Integrate Bristol. In this two-part story we follow a young woman dealing with the dangers of FGM. (Watch Saturday's episode on BBC iPlayer).
FGM is child abuse and it is vital that front-line professionals who meet girls on a regular basis know exactly what the danger signs are and how to react accordingly. Children aren’t able to use legislation like an adult and can face misconceptions of FGM being carried out because their families ‘love them’ from the professionals they seek to protect them - the FGM legislation is not effective by itself.
It may seem that FGM is currently being talked about everywhere but the current media coverage has been years in the making and has taken countless meetings and doors being closed in our faces for us to get here. As a British survivor of FGM, I have witnessed the conversations about FGM over the years come and go, but what they all had in common was a focus on speaking to those either historically affected by the practice – or those that upheld and enabled it to happen.
For the most part, people have been discussing FGM as a cultural issue that happens in ‘lands far away’ and that we should educate those carrying it out. My view is that we need to step away completely from the terms ‘culture’ and ‘community’ and stop trying to make ourselves feel better about not doing anything by suggesting that FGM is based on ‘love’. This is one of the biggest misconceptions – and an extremely dangerous one too. FGM is not a loving act. It is violence against women and girls and any strategy for its elimination needs to be based in this framework.
Daughters of Eve is delighted to see £35 million made available by the UK government to tackle this issue in Africa and elsewhere, but we must make sure that experts on this issue are being listened to. We should be learning from holistic models such as in Burkina Faso and Kenya, where recent Demographic and Health Surveys have shown prevalence rates to have fallen more than elsewhere (up to 30%). These models consider FGM to be violence against women and girls and are effective because they combine child protection and legislation, as well as educational measures, to empower those at risk or affected.
As a form of violence against women, FGM takes place because of structural inequalities in society – particularly gender inequality. We need to empower and protect those at risk to make sure that it is eliminated. Any approach to end FGM which does not address these inequalities will only leave a vacuum for another form of violence against women – or for those who carry out FGM to say that it does not exist.
Progress is definitely being made. In Bristol, we have hundreds of young people who are not only standing up and speaking out about FGM, but questioning the role of women within their communities. They are being empowered with language that has not just changed their lives, but also those of their mothers. Women from a highly FGM-affected population are also calling it violence against women and girls and linking FGM to all the other forms of abuse they have experienced. As one woman said: ‘If it is ok to cut a girl because she is a girl, then what you will do to her as a woman will be worse’. This change has not come easily for those of us that have stood up against FGM. We face death threats on a regular basis, we have been attacked on the street and lost people we once believed to be friends.
My personal aim is to afford young women the same privileges that I had and for them to understand that within them there is great potential. I was freely educated and given the space and support to develop my identity. I was allowed to be me and not have a predefined culture projected on to me, which is sadly happening to girls today.
We need to all stand together and empower the girls who are seeking our support. As Tamasha says on Casualty, quoting a young women we have worked with: ‘It never stops hurting. It is always painful’. Let us not deepen that pain by undermining the bravery of those women and girls that come forward not only to tell their stories, but also to live a life of their choosing.
If I could wish for one thing to change as a result of the Casualty episodes, it would be for everyone to see the child in front of us as a girl asking for help and not part of an ‘other’ culture. As we say at Daughters of Eve, ‘If you save one girl you save a generation’.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British government.
Find out what the British government is doing to eliminate female genital mutilation.