FGM – from taboo to headline news, but what now?
Written by Kendrick Lebron on February 12, 2020
Nimco Ali OBE, a British-Somali campaigner against FGM
When I was seven I was taken on holiday to Djibouti where I underwent female genital mutilation. I’m still living with the consequences, and for the last decade have been campaigning against FGM both at home in Britain and around the world.
In 2010, almost nobody was talking about it here. We were told it wasn’t a topic for mainstream media. One breakfast TV producer told Brendan Wynne, my colleague and co-founder of The Five Foundation, that “FGM and cornflakes don’t mix ”. But much has changed since then, and FGM now makes frontpage news.
Once seen as an issue of culture and tradition, FGM has been reframed as one of violence against girls and child abuse in a campaign where FGM survivors have taken centre stage. I can now say that Britain cares about women like me and is deeply committed to ending the practice both at home and worldwide. It has strengthened its laws and committed £85m since 2013 to tackle FGM in Africa.
FGM is now seen as a global issue affecting women and girls from Europe and the Americas to the Middle East and Asia, but it is overwhelmingly relevant to Africa. According to UNICEF, over 200 million of us are affected and 68 million girls are at risk between now and 2030. That number is likely to keep increasing as better data becomes available.
In late 2019, UNFPA estimated $95 is needed to protect each girl at risk. The need is immense and hugely urgent, but for the most part donors have sidestepped this issue. They seem to think it’s too difficult and somehow not central to realising gender equality. This is one of the biggest barriers to change that we continue to face.
Political will is now much higher than a decade ago. Although still permissible in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, FGM is now illegal in almost every African country where it is prevalent. But it is still legal in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Mali in West Africa, and Sudan, Somalia and Somaliland in East Africa.
In Somaliland, where I was born, we’ve been working with President Musa, the authorities and local activists to ban FGM. But there is opposition, particularly from religious leaders in the Ministry of Religion and Welfare, who may not agree to an outright ban on all types of FGM. In Liberia and Sierra Leone there continues to be political resistance to banning it for fear of losing votes.
And yet, governments do not seem to see that ending FGM is fundamentally linked to Africa’s economic prosperity. The Legatum Institute’s Global Prosperity Index shows not a single African country affected by FGM made it into the top 100. An important new economic tool launched this week by the WHO will show countries the cost of FGM.
We are also starting to get a better sense of what approaches are actually effective in ending FGM. Despite significant investment, some countries like Senegal have still not reduced FGM prevalence according to UNICEF data, while others like Kenya have led the way, due to a combination of active civil society, an engaged media and political will to protect girls at risk – at least on some level. It’s optimistic but important that President Kenyatta has stated he wants to end it there within two years.
Let’s make this a decade of deliverance for African women and girls and see the links between gender equality, women’s economic empowerment and a country’s prosperity. I hope that foundations will finally get behind frontline activists like Jaha Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls in The Gambia and Josephine Kulea, founder of Kenya’s Samburu Girls Foundation. Let’s continue to get the private sector involved too and follow trailblazers like African payments group Dahabshiil, which has supported us and work to end FGM in Somaliland.
We have ten years to end FGM in Africa and beyond, but unless we change our approach we will still be talking about this devastating abuse in ten years’ time.