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.