Education and empowerment, the only way to end FGM, a shocking violation of human rights
When I travelled around the world researching my book What We’re Told Not to Talk About But We’re Going To, Anyway in 2019, one of the subjects that came up constantly was the impact of female genital mutilation (FGM) on women’s lives. Seen as a preparation for marriage and usually performed sometime between babyhood and adolescence, this brutal act defines a girl’s value to her family and community.
Girls are the material assets to the male patriarchy on the African continent and a young girl’s only economic power is the dowry she earns for her family when she marries; without FGM she’s seen as unmarriageable. Women told me that the disempowerment and loss of self-respect they felt in this transaction was as bad as – or worse than – the physical brutality of FGM. “At the age of one I was subjected to FGM and literally stitched up,” Amana said. “My only purpose was, like some kind of human gift, to be opened on my husband’s wedding night.”
The WHO estimates that 200 million women around the world have suffered FGM, predominantly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East but also in Europe, where 600,000 women have been affected. In 29 high-prevalence countries it currently costs governments $1.4 billion in immediate and lifelong medical complications.
Despite being banned in 22 countries and criminalised since 2018 in Somalia, where around 98 per cent of women have been cut, this atrocity continues to be inflicted on babies and children. In the UK an estimated 137,000 women have suffered FGM and treatment of the ongoing psychological, emotional and physical impact is estimated to cost the NHS £100m a year.
The ongoing health problems of FGM are well-known. Despite being a ritual for marriage, it causes infections and can make sex painful and childbirth dangerous, as Maria described to me: “The passage where the baby is meant to pass was too small for every one of my babies, and the midwife would cut me as much as she had to, like a can opener.”
There are four different levels of FGM, all involving a knife, razor blade or piece of glass to cut the clitoris and vulva, mostly without pain relief, and sometimes involving infibulation, a rough resewing of the labia to block the vaginal opening.
The reality of a screaming, terrified, defenceless child being held down, often by family members they trust, is so unbearable that sometimes they can’t speak of it afterwards. And hearing about it can be so unbearable to outsiders that the only way to process this terrible knowledge is to distance themselves by thinking of it as a far-away cultural practice that affects people of different religions or skin colours and doesn’t affect them.
I can understand why people don’t want to talk about this, but I too suffered FGM as a child in Djibouti, and I do want to talk. I believe this is more than “gender violence”, it’s a shocking violation of human rights that concerns everyone – I believe we all have a moral obligation. I want FGM to end in my generation, not the next.
Unlike millions of other FGM-sufferers I’ve got a voice: as a first-generation immigrant African woman I’ve been able to sit with the Secretary of State, Priti Patel, and be her independent advisor on social and legal initiatives.
I’ve talked to world leaders and heads of government about FGM, I’ve influenced global policy. (I’ve even contributed an FGM storyline to Call the Midwife.) How? Because I was brought up in the UK by economically stable parents, I was well educated and able to become financially independent as an adult. My mother didn’t have a choice in my FGM, but she listened to me and helped me not to be scared of my own voice. I was never ashamed or embarrassed about my FGM, I just wanted context and explanations. This is what gave me the confidence to speak up, and ultimately the determination to found the Five Foundation, a global partnership that aims to end FGM by 2030.
While there are many charities supporting women in Africa, the reality is that less than one per cent of donations handled through large-scale charities and NGOs actually reaches activists on the ground. The difference with the Five Foundation is that our funding streams do reach women working at grassroots level in villages and communities, where overheads are only two per cent. Many have been there for decades, trusted by the women they work with and trusted by us to know how and where it’s best to distribute funding.
One of the greatest misconceptions around the fight against FGM is that we need to reinvent the wheel and teach women how to tackle it in places they’ve been working successfully through umbrella organisations for decades. It’s not about choosing new projects but about empowering and supporting the women making change in their communities: who are already doing vital work with ideas and information, but never given the credit or the necessary funding.
These women have taught us that the route to change is by persuading mothers that their daughters don’t need to be cut in order to survive. Part of the problem in ending FGM is that although (of course) women don’t want their own daughters to be cut, they’re terrified that not doing so will make their children outcasts, since without marriage they’ll have no value.
FGM is thought to be a female circumcision ritual dating back to ancient times but was first raised as an issue of international concern by a Somali woman, Edna Adan, who worked at the UN and wrote a paper about the health consequences of FGM in 1977. She told me how she and other FGM activists staged a sit-in outside the UN headquarters in New York. Unfortunately, I think the biggest mistake the UN made historically was to look at FGM as a health issue. It’s inescapably true that women are affected by FGM long-term, including infections and problems with childbirth. But ultimately it’s a human rights violation.
So female education is the route to change, and women teaching other women about what’s possible, by working house to house in the villages is the only way to spread the word – not only that FGM is wrong, but that education for girls is the solution, so they don’t have to be reliant on marriage and men for survival. I come from an oral tradition, where silence is the killer and it’s important to share experiences in order to overcome shame.
The Five Foundation is not only empowering women from the bottom, but gaining funding support from the top. We convene donors from all sectors to change the way evidence-based, grassroots activism is funded and we’ve engaged over 90 partners, including Action Aid, Plan International, the ONE Campaign, Women for Women International and Global Fund for Women, as well as dozens of grassroots women’s organisations. In the financial sector we look at how banking institutions can give women economic empowerment through loans for new businesses, as well as support schemes such as digital learning.
There’s no doubt now that Africa’s future is female. Women are 50 per cent of Africa’s economic capital, but they’re under-utilised, mostly not utilised at all. If we really are going to be able to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for gender equality, we have to look to the women. FGM can only end when women have both economic power and power over their own bodies. If we don’t act now, women are going to continue being sold on as baby-making machines within their communities and we’re soon going to hit the two billion mark of women who’ve been physically and mentally scarred by FGM. Between now and 2030 there are 70 million more girls at risk.
Change is possible but not inevitable – unless everyone takes part. The smallest donation can be put directly into the hands of local activists who’ve experienced FGM themselves. Only they can persuade mothers like Amana and Maria that the lives of their daughters and granddaughters can be different – that they don’t have to be victims but through education can learn to be economically independent and take charge of their own lives.
Nimco Ali is an FGM survivor, strategist and author. Born in Somaliland, she grew up in the UK. In 2019, she co-founded The Five Foundation, The Global Partnership To End FGM. She co-founded Daughters of Eve in 2010. Nimco’s work has helped to position FGM as a central issue in ending violence against women and girls. She is the independent advisor on violence against women and girls for the UK Home Office and has worked for counter-terrorism within the civil service. She supports the rights of girls in the UK as part of Girlguiding UK and currently as a board member for Inspiring Girls. In 2019, Nimco was awarded an OBE. Her book, “What We’re Told Not To Talk About But We’re Going To Anyway”, is published by Penguin. More info at TheFiveFoundation.org
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