It was exactly one year ago when I stood on a stage, absolutely terrified, as I introduced myself as one of three MCs to over 600 civil servants, campaigners, heads of state, ministers, government representatives and young people. It was the first ever Girl Summit, an event co-hosted by the UK government and UNICEF with the sole focus of mobilising efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in a generation.
Since the summit, where it was declared that these harmful traditional practices “must end”, progress has been made and the momentum has continued.
On Friday, Bedfordshire police issued a FGM protection order where by seizing passports, the police force has prevented the travel of two girls thought to be at risk of the practice. The summer holidays are known as the “cutting season”, a time where girls are thought to be most at risk of being taken abroad to undergo the practice of FGM.
The practice, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia of women and girls, is thought to have affected between 110 and 140m girls worldwide, with 65,000 girls under 15 being at risk in the UK.
Detective Chief Inspector Nick Bellingham of the force’s Public Protection Unit told the Telegraph: “With schools breaking up for the summer holidays today, we will continue to use this legislation where needed to prevent young girls who we believe may be at risk from being taken out of the country”.
When I spoke to Nimco Ali, a leading campaigner against FGM who co-founded the charity Daughters of Eve, it is clear that she welcomes this portection order, but worries that the focus should not only be during the summer holidays. Ali says:
We cannot slip back into thinking that it’s only in the summer or only in certain communities. Now we understand that it’s a form of violence against women and girls and a child abuse issue, we must keep the conversation going. Are there times when girls are at a heightened risk of FGM? Yes. But we have to be on guard all the time because perpetrators are very smart. If perpetrators think we’re only looking at this issue around the summer, then they’ll change it to another time.
This is a view shared by the co-founder of Integrate Bristol, Lisa Zimmermann, who believes that the implementation of safeguarding through education is fundamental:
The key thing that is still missing is Personal, Social, Health Education (PSHE) in schools with the inclusion of FGM and gender based violence. Education is vital and I have found that peer education is the most effective model. We need all teachers to be empowered so that they feel confident not just about FGM but about gender based violence. And this is key because we can no longer see FGM as an isolated issue but in the context of gender based violence, gender equality and respect.
Through our outreach work, we’ve reached over 4,000 people this year alone and have empowered countless girls. One girl has been able to talk to her nieces who lived in Europe that weren’t protected by the law and the cycle has been broken. Another girl was able to disclose to me about her FGM and the fact that she was able to do that is incredible. It’s about educating the younger generation and breaking cycles so that girls can be empowered.
Across the pond, the fight to end FGM may still be in the early days, but it continues. A petition started by Atlanta based Jaha Dukureh in partnership with Equality Now and The Guardian gathered over 220,000 signatures, meaning that the US government committed to an updated prevalence study on FGM.
A study by the Population Reference Bureau found that 507,000 American women and girls have either been – or are at risk of being – subjected to FGM. Federal law dictates that it is illegal to perform FGM on a girl or knowingly transport her to inflict FGM upon her, but 26 out of the 50 states in the US are yet to enact anti-FGM legislation.
Shelby Quast, the Policy Director of Equality Now, said:
The US can be a global leader on efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM). However, we must first get our own house in order. Although there is a federal law which bans FGM, there is a need for a comprehensive inter-agency approach to address the practice that will last throughout this administration and beyond. We urge the US to provide a public update on its plans to ensure all efforts to end FGM are sustainable and supported with funding, and support and encourage state efforts to end FGM at local levels.
In Malawi, 12 per cent of girls are married by 15, and 50 per cent by 18. Until earlier this year, the legal age of marriage was 15. After advocacy efforts by civil society and girls’ rights campaigners, the minimum age of marriage was changed to 18.
One of these campaigners was Memory Banda, an 18-year-old girls’ rights activist who refused to get married, and carried on with her education. Banda’s sister got pregnant aged 11 after going to an “initiation camp” where she was taught how to sexually please a man. Now, she is 16 and has three children. Speaking at the TEDWomen conference, Banda spoke candidly about how legislational changes were not the only pieces in the puzzle needed to protect girls – there needs to be a societal shift as to how girls are seen.
She ends this powerful talk by saying: “This is a moment when millions of girls worldwide will be able to say, ‘I will marry when I want.’”
At the surface, it may seem like child marriage has been banned in Malawi, and the final step is to ensure the law is enforced. However the Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill may outlaw child marriage, but cannot overwrite the Constitution stipulating that girls and boy aged 15 to 18 may marry with parental consent. It is also worth noting that the Constitution does not specifically prohibit the marriage of children under 15, but merely directs the government to “discourage them”.
Tanzania, a neighbouring country to Malawi, has one of the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. Two out of five girls will be married before their 18th birthday. I spoke to Petrider, a #YouthForChange panel member and it was clear that she wanted to see more change – and quickly: “We have made a call for amendments of the Law Marriage Act as it states the age of marriage is 14 years with parents consent and 15 years without consent.”
Petrider has joined the #YouthForChange panel, a global partnership of young people supported by Plan UK and the Department for International Development. When I spoke to Petrider, she was most excited about the platform the panel would give her to help make a “global impact for girls’ rights”.
This is something that Ali is clearly ecstatic about in the UK, as she speaks with great passion and speed about young people, especially those from the African continent, finally being the forefront of the conversation: “Internationally, the conversation is still happening and we are finally listening to the leading voices which are African voices. I love the fact that young people are at the heart of the campaign with other agents of change.”
The involvement of young people in the battle to end these practices has been vital. For many years in the UK, due to political correctness, FGM was not spoken about, or only spoken about as something that happened to those “poor African girls”.
This drastically changed from 2012 with Newsnight where young people from the youth charity, Integrate Bristol were featured on the program. One of those young people is 20-year-old Ifrah Hassan who has been campaigning to end FGM since she was 13. When I speak to Ifrah, the frankness about the subject she has possessed since she was 13 is still there: “FGM doesn’t happen because you are African, it happens because you are a girl and abuse can happen to all women, from all countries, races and religions.”
Tanya Barron, the Chief Executive of children’s charity of Plan UK echoes Ali about the necessity of young peoples’ voices in the conversation. Replying to me over email, she wrote:
Through initiatives like #YouthForChange, it’s young people who are leading that conversation, which can only be a good thing. The challenge now is to continue to translate this momentum into real progress on the ground; to turn gradually changing attitudes into generations free from FGM and child marriage.
Across the African continent, small steps are being taken every day to end these harmful traditional practices. With the support of Equality Now, the first prosecution was secured against FGM in Egypt which has the highest rate of women and girls who have been subject to the practice in the world.
In Uganda, five people were jailed over FGM. Just recently, Nigeria banned FGM. Countries like Bangladesh and Burkina Faso with high child marriage rates have just begun the legal process of ending the practices for the first time. And Kenya continues to show other countries how a multi-agency approach can truly lead to a national movement to end a harmful traditional practice.
These steps may seem insignificant in the wide scale fight against these practices, but as articulated by Shelby Quast, the Policy Director at Equality Now, they made lead to a ripple effect of change:
There has been some amazing progress over the past year. Nigeria has passed an anti-FGM law, which will hopefully have a ripple effect in other countries which have yet to do so such as Liberia, Mali, The Gambia and Sudan. However, key challenges have continued in countries such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia, which have yet to ban child marriage.
Quast speaks with a brilliant understanding of how far we have come, but how far we have to go. In Yemen, there is no law that bans child marriage. In 2008, ten-year-old Nujood Ali made the headlines when the courts granted her a divorce. In Saudi Arabia, there is no minimum age for marriage, meaning it is perfectly legal to marry even an hour-old child. Even in Nigeria, where the government has brought in anti-FGM legislation, the legal age for sexual consent is 11; there is progress but there are some serious drawbacks too.
But we must not lose hope. Sierra Leone has just ratified the Maputu Protocol, which guarantees comprehensive rights to women such as the right to take part in the political process, control of their reproductive health and an end to female genital mutilation. Alimatu Dimonekene, who was subjected to FGM in Sierra Leone when she was 16, welcomes the ratification of the Maputu Protocol:
The ratification of the Maputo Protocol earlier this month was 12 years in the making. It is a decision that will transform the lives of every Sierra Leonean woman and girl for years to come, bringing a lot of awareness to issues such as domestic violence and child marriage, equality and women’s rights in the country.
It is clear that we have made an insurmountable amount of progress in the last year, and some great strides have been taken in the UK and internationally. The important thing we must do is to keep going, even when there are setbacks.
Just as we celebrated the first FGM protection order being used in Bedfordshire, new research from Equality Now and City University found no locality in England and Wales was free from FGM. In the London borough of Southwark, as many as one in 20 women has undergone the practice of FGM, demonstrating that there is a need for all professionals to be trained and aware.
To end FGM and child marriage completely, we must continue to see it embedded in the framework to end violence against women and girls. International Development Secretary, Justine Greening, spoke powerfully at the Girl Summit last year, and she has fulfilled her commitment to placing girls’ rights at the centre of development.
When I spoke to her last week, she summed up for me the relentless attitude we must all possess in this battle for girls’ rights:
When it comes to the rights of girls and women, if you’re not winning the battle, you’re losing it. And so Britain is going to keep fighting this battle, with a growing number of other countries and campaigners, until we win it for girls for good.
Ultimately, these practices will continue until the world begins to see girls as human beings with inalienable rights, one of them being bodily autonomy. Ending female genital mutilation and child marriage are important steps to achieving gender equality – and granting girls their freedom.