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5 October 2013updated 07 Sep 2021 9:59am

Nimko Ali: Survivors of FGM won’t be silenced by the backlash against them

Women who speak out about female genital mutilation are often afraid of their family and friends' reaction - never mind abuse on social media. They need more support, says Nimko Ali.

By New Statesman

Last week’s Channel 4 documentary, The Cruel Cut, marked a watershed moment for those of us who have been working to end female genital mutilation in the UK. We can truly say that the issue has been brought into the mainstream and out of the shadows – which was exactly my aim when I set up our anti-FGM organisation Daughters of Eve with Leyla Hussein, who presented the programme, and Sainab Abdi in 2010.

When I was seven, and I told my teacher about what had happened to me while on holiday in Dijbouti, she said that it was something that “happened to girls like me”. She said that I should just accept it.  More recently, people who I told about my FGM often reacted by asking about my sex life, rather than how I was. The abuse itself was not their main focus.

I have never considered myself a victim, though. Leyla and Sainab and the thousands of women like us are survivors. We have had to come terms with our feelings about what happened to us, and deal with our relationships to our families; we have also fought totally inadequate child safeguarding systems, which have let us down time and time again.

But we have come out the other side, with our lights shining brighter 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 every single day.

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.

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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.

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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.  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.

In February, the Evening Standard published literally three lines about my own experience of FGM. 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. Honestly, there were some days this year when I cried so much, I did not think I would be able to get out of bed. 

But I am lucky.  I have a lot of great people in my life to lean on and a platform from which to tell other girls and women out there that they are not alone. 

When Channel 4 gave Leyla the chance to talk about FGM in a way which allowed her to get her message across, she jumped at it.  Her goal was to convince the British public – and the UK government – to translate words into action and take a firm lead on addressing FGM once and for all.

Even before The Cruel Cut aired last Wednesday, 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 now at 23, it is still an experience which affects her every day. The programme was virtually impossible for me to watch, but somehow I did. 

But within minutes of the programme airing, the stream of messages and emails to Daughters of Eve started to turn nasty. One message ended with the line: “Hope you both 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 and was being mocked for telling her story.  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.

This is the reality of how the silence of child abuse is sustained.

The Met Police is sometimes given the blame for the fact there have been zero prosecutions for FGM in the UK, but they are 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 last Monday, there is no lack of intent; there is a huge lack of information. Without evidence, they cannot do anything.

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 calling for the UK government to develop and implement a national action plan to prevent FGM; 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.

We are pushing for the Daughters of Eve and Equality Now petition to reach 100,000 signatories, so we can discuss the issue in a parliamentary debate. There have already been some positive responses from eager MPs, so we are hopeful.

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, people have to be held accountable for child safeguarding and children at risk need to be fully protected.

This has been an incredibly difficult year, but I know we have already achieved a huge amount. I am proud and excited for more to come. 

The silence has been truly broken and my spirit is stronger than ever.