This has been a terrible few weeks. First, I learnt of the deaths of four girls in Somalia after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). Then there was more heart-breaking news of around 50 girls being hospitalised in Burkina Faso after FGM which has already led to the arrest of more than 22 people. These are just a few incidents that brave anti-FGM activists have spoken out about. There will be many more girls who have been severely injured or killed but FGM is mostly a secretive practice and their stories will never be told.
It is an outrage that there is so little reaction to reports of FGM. It is good that the authorities in Burkina Faso have reacted quickly but this is unusual and it is too late for the girls already cut. In most cases there is a wall of silence and people shrug and move on, but can you imagine if large numbers of white, blond haired and blue-eyed girls from privileged middle-class families were being assaulted and cut so badly they needed emergency medical treatment? To me and many others, the lack of interest in FGM from politicians, law enforcement and others in positions of power says that the lives and welfare of black and brown girls matters less than those of other children.
Despite laws against it in most countries, FGM remains a widespread practice in many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is also practised by diaspora communities across the world. People take their customs with them as much as they take luggage when they move to a new home. FGM is a global problem and according to the United Nations 68 million girls will undergo FGM by 2030 unless there is accelerated action to stop it. That’s approximately 11 girls every minute. The world should be howling in pain and outrage at this horrendous abuse of our girls.
After recent campaigns there is greater public awareness of the harm caused by FGM and higher levels of funding for anti-FGM programmes. However, progress towards ending FGM is too slow and most survivors suffer the lifelong consequences in silence with little or no support. Girls and women are being let down over and over again. Their rights and needs are seen as less important than other issues. It is time to demand more.
The old approaches of national and international initiatives where funding is directed to established organisations, who have the expertise to manage government and donor funding contracts but not the knowledge of how to stop FGM in specific communities, are not working. We need the political will and brave leadership to look honestly and in detail at work is and isn’t working. There has been good work in the past, but we must do better.
Every day I am in contact with activists, many of whom are survivors of FGM, and they are crying out for help. They know about FGM in their communities and they know how to stop it but they do not have funding and support. Instead they are all too frequently ignored by the authorities who should be working with them. They do not fit the profile of “safe recipients” for government grants and international aid funding but they are the people who can bring about the massive change we should be trying to achieve.
Activists from different countries tell me about how they struggle to save girls from FGM. These are people who visit families where girls are at risk and ensure their safety. They work with families for weeks or months, returning for check-up visits until the families agree to abandon FGM. They run group education sessions in remote villages and provide safe houses for girls who need a place of sanctuary. This work is hard, requiring strong commitment and personal bravery.
Time after time I hear from amazing activists that they are stressed and tired, living with a constant strain of struggling for financial support. A small amount of money makes the difference to whether or not they can travel to where they know girls are being cut, to buy equipment or to build a team so that they can scale up their projects. Many activists do this work as volunteers but they also need paid work to support their families. Small, easy to administer grants would make a huge difference to their community-based work and would bring about a step-change in protecting girls.
If we are serious about ending FGM we must change the way that we structure work against it. We need to directly invest in the activists working at the grassroots and I have run out of patience with people who say this is too difficult. When it comes to safeguarding millions of girls it should not be too much for those responsible to think more creatively and roll up their sleeves for some hard work. This is why I founded Magool and why over the coming months we will be looking for ways to amplify the voices of grassroots activists and to help them access funding.