Female genital mutilation: what the UK can learn from overseas

We would do well to learn from the openness, engagement and attitude change in Mali.

Komara’s granddaughter was three years old when her clitoris was cut out. In this area of Mali it was accepted practice that girls must have parts of their external genitalia removed, in order to become women. Unfortunately this young girl did not survive the process. She suffered a massive haemorrhage, dying in a pool of her own blood.

Komara decided she had seen enough. Joined by mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters she spoke out against the practice. More and more people in Tounkara village got behind her. A fortnight ago I was there as the whole community – girls, women, former cutters and elders explained publicly on local TV how they were stopping the practice in their community.

Why is the UK failing to stop female genital mutilation while in Mali an increasing number of communities are protecting their girls from this abuse? Perhaps because criminalising an abuse is ineffective without action to inform and enforce.

The Director of Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer, has acknowledged this week that although female genital mutilation has been a criminal offence here since 1985, there has not been a single prosecution. Perhaps some lessons from Tounkara could help protect the 20000 British girls at risk of mutilation, because their families hail from countries like Mali and parts of Africa and the Middle East where this abuse is common.

Local Plan worker, Boucom Madima, explained to me that trust and time are key. “We have been working with 80 villages for ten years and the rate of excision for girls under four in this area has dropped from 97% to 46%. Some villages are divided with voices being raised against it, others are hesitant. Most are now in the middle of abandoning the practice and 27 have totally banned it.”

The conversation starts around the health risks. The local health worker briefs parents on the dangers of haemorrhage, infection, tetanus and HIV and warns that girls are twice as likely to die in childbirth after undergoing female genital mutilation.

Suleiman, who lives in Tounkara, has five girls but stopped mutilation after the pain the first two suffered. When another girl haemorrhaged after being cut, the two cutters (the aunt and her niece) made the connection and decided to stop using the blade. They told me, “Side effects don’t show straight away. Before we never connected the stomach pains or difficulty in childbirth with excision... Now we know it is connected we cannot carry on.”

The village council also backed Komara’s campaign. The chief makes space at village meetings for sessions to tackle head on the dangers of mutilation and the arguments for it- including tradition, cleanliness, preserving a girl’s honour. Although there is no national law yet against female genital mutilation, this community is about to declare itself free of the practice.

Munkoro village is conservative – children are seen and not heard and women are rarely vocal in public. So it was a sign of the social revolution that had taken place that 15 year old Namala could publicly declare, looking straight into the TV camera,

“Excision is bad for girls. I remember the pain. There is danger of loss of blood, of tetanus, of HIV infection. We must stop excision in Mali.”

When will such openness, engagement and attitude change happen in the UK? So far even two acts of parliament and a parliamentary enquiry have not succeeded in protecting our girls.


Marie Staunton with Namala, who has spoken out bravely against excision.

Marie Staunton is  Chief Executive of Plan UK, one of the largest child-centred community development organisations in the world.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.