After speaking out against FGM, I faced a backlash. That's why we all need to stand together

After coming out as a survivor of female genital mutilation, Nimko Ali heard from men who wanted to kill her and lost contact with people who she considered to be family. That's why we have to speak out on behalf of those who are still finding their voice

As we mark UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women I would like to take a moment and look at how far we have come this year in addressing female genital mutilation in the UK. We can truly say that the issue has been brought out of the shadows and into the mainstream. It has also been clearly categorised as violence against women and girls.

This was exactly my aim when I set up our anti-FGM organisation Daughters of Eve in 2010 along with Leyla Hussein and Sainab Abdi.

To some, it might seem that I have been talking about FGM for a long time, but in reality, it has been less than 12 months. I made the decision to stand up and talk about my experience because I knew that it was unfair to ask kids or others to come forward when I was too scared to do so myself. I also felt that if I talked openly, then the media would stop asking young women about their experiences, when they were clearly not ready to do so and might be putting themselves at risk of attack.

I had FGM at the age of seven, while on holiday in Dijbouti. When I told my teacher, she said that it was something that “happened to girls like me”. It was the first time I would experience the shocking fact that people did not see this form of abuse for what it was.

Growing up, I watched countless young British girls being failed, "othered" and sidelined – often by those whose job it was to safeguard from harm. I chose not to speak about FGM for a long time, as I knew that the pain of not being believed or understood would be almost impossible to bear.

I know how hard it is to speak out about FGM – not only because of the painful memory of reliving what happened to you, which can be overpowering in itself – but also the backlash. This is often what survivors are not fully prepared for.

We are told that by speaking up, you are "dishonouring your community, family and even yourself". Getting the courage to speak up to protect other girls is not enough – you also have to somehow muster up even more to defend yourself from attack.

In February, the Evening Standard published literally three lines about my experience of FGM, giving my name. The reaction I received was shocking. I found out that some men wanted to kill me and I lost contact with people who I considered to be family. There were some days this year when I cried so much, I did not think I would be able to get out of bed.

Following what has been a tremendous year of media advocacy on FGM, earlier this month, Channel 4’s The Cruel Cut, presented by Daughters of Eve’s Leyla Hussein, marked a watershed moment. Even before it aired, hundreds of people tweeted about how excited they were to see it. It was really exhilarating to be part of such a monumental national event and I could not wait to see how the conversation would develop.

Leyla used funny props such as our infamous "vagina cupcakes", a huge pink "vagina tent" and clay models to illustrate what really happens. She told her story along with other survivors. One woman spoke about how she had undergone FGM at the age of six and how, at 23, it is still an experience which affects her every single day.

Within minutes of the programme airing, the predictable stream of messages and emails to Daughters of Eve started to turn nasty. One message ended with the line: “Hope you die and painfully!”. The following morning I heard that one of the brave young women who spoke out was receiving the same type of abusive messages. While I am at least somewhat used to the backlash, every time I hear that the same thing is happening to other survivors, it breaks my heart.

The Met Police is sometimes given the blame for the fact there have been zero prosecutions for FGM in the UK, but they are really doing their best. As Keith Niven from Project Azure said at the launch of the Intercollegiate Recommendations on Tackling FGM in the UK in parliament in early November, there is no lack of intent; there is a huge lack of information. Without evidence, they cannot do anything.

However, while the Met Police has also been great in providing survivors with basic safety, if you are outside London, there is unfortunately little support available. And there is virtually no psychological or emotional support available anywhere, apart from that provided by survivors or survivor support groups like Leyla’s amazing Dahlia Project. This has to change.

We are now calling on the UK government to take charge once and for all. It needs to develop and implement a national action plan to prevent FGM; to orchestrate a national awareness-raising campaign to communicate risks and responsibilities; and to provide essential support for survivors, including psychological and emotional support – as well as adequate protection measures against any backlash for speaking out.

The Daughters of Eve and Equality Now petition will hopefully soon reach 100,000 signatories, so we can discuss the issue in parliament. There have already been some positive responses from eager MPs, so we are very hopeful that the political will is there to generate lasting change.

One of my mentors, Efua Dorkenoo from Equality Now, has been fighting this battle for more than 30 years. She knows that without government leadership, all the awareness-raising and mainstreaming efforts may not translate into real change. Systems have to be put in place, children at risk need to be fully protected and people have to be held accountable for their roles and responsibilities in safeguarding girls.

This has been an incredibly difficult year, but I am proud and know that we have already achieved a huge amount. The silence has been truly broken and my spirit is stronger than ever. I tell all survivors of FGM that nobody can take away their spirit. It is this spirit that keeps us fighting and growing stronger. I want survivors to know too that they are not alone and that I will continue to fight for them every single day.

There is no doubt that we have the quiet majority on our side – and the movement is growing, but I urge everyone to stand with survivors of FGM and speak out on behalf of those who are still finding their voice.

This is a fight for justice against those who use hatred and violence to silence and hold us back. It is a fight for British girls and women who desperately need your help.

This is your opportunity to be brave.

Salimata Knight, a survivor from Genital Mutilation, in 2004. Photo: Getty
Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle