How we will end female genital mutilation

From the Gambia to Kenya, FGM has been fought most successfully at grassroots level. The world must pay heed.

I underwent female genital mutilation at the age of seven, while on holiday in Djibouti. When I returned to school in the UK my teacher told me that this happened to “girls like me”.

Thankfully, this type of reaction is no longer common, and this country is much better equipped to protect girls at risk. FGM is now seen as a global issue, which we know has affected more than 200 million women and girls around the world.

But a further 68 million girls are estimated to be at risk over the next 10 years, and ending FGM is a huge challenge. Funding – particularly to frontline activists – is almost non-existent. Yet this is where change starts; efforts to end FGM are led from the grassroots, usually by survivors.

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The groundbreaking activism of Jaha Dukureh, the Nobel peace prize nominee and founder of Safe Hands for Girls, has regenerated the African movement to end FGM. In 2015, she almost single-handedly got the country to unite in pressing the Gambian government to ban the practice.

In recent years, Safe Hands for Girls has partnered with the Gambian education ministry to launch a vibrant, nationwide pink bus tourthat has reached thousands of students, firing up their passion to end FGM in this generation.

The campaign was heavily supported on social media and the positive message of changing Gambian society gained traction very quickly. The ministry contacted every school in advance, asking them to encourage young people to participate fully. This meant that activists were able to lead assemblies, speak to entire classes, and spend a lot of time in each school talking with girls, boys and their teachers.

Prevalence statistics due to be released later this year are expected to show a decrease in FGM in the Gambia, where cutting of infants and very young girls is so common that any change is likely to become apparent more quickly than it would elsewhere.

Jaha Dukureh has spearheaded efforts to end FGM in the Gambia. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The Guardian

Kenya, meanwhile, where the practice was banned in 2011, has led the way globally in terms of reducing FGM prevalence.

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Led by Dr Josephine Kulea, Samburu Girls Foundation uses education to protect girls from FGM and promote their human rights. More than a thousand young women have been rescued and given a place to stay in the organisation’s rescue centre. The institution also does outreach to Somali, Maasai, Samburu and Pokot communities by speaking in Swahili in an effort to unite these diverse cultural groups against FGM and child marriage.

This work aside, Samburu Girls Foundation helps to bring cases against policymakers who do not implement the 2011 FGM ban, which is not applied in certain regions. The Samburu region, where more than 80% of women and girls are cut, is one of several where prevalence remains high.

The foundation has also helped to defend the case of medical professional Dr Tatu Kamau, which is currently being heard at the Kenyan high court. Kamau is trying to have FGM legalised for adult women, which could have severe consequences not only in Kenya but around the world.


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The UN has set a 2030 deadline to end FGM. I co-founded the Five Foundation, a global partnership to end FGM, with this in mind – and to fill a gap in the movement.

The Five Foundation partners with large charities such as ActionAid, Plan International and Women for Women International, as well as with dozens of grassroots groups like Samburu Girls Foundation and Safe Hands for Girls. We must all work together as much as we can.

But we are also calling on foundations and governments to change the way we fund efforts to end FGM. This means finally trusting and supporting frontline activists like Dukureh and Kulea, who are the most credible and effective agents of change – but who have been left out of the equation for far too long.

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