Following Friday’s International Zero Tolerance Day for FGM, campaigner Nimco Ali explains why we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s an overseas problem.
Friday was International Zero Tolerance Day for FGM. It was a moment to reflect on the positive change, led from African countries like Burkina Faso and Kenya, which is sweeping across every continent.
It is change started by African women decades ago, but now has its own growing momentum around the world.
For many, the issue of FGM is something that happens “far away” and “in a hut somewhere”. That’s not true in countries like Egypt, where 77% of FGM is performed by health personnel, or in Indonesia, Sudan or Kenya, which are all part of this emerging trend towards the ‘medicalisation’ of FGM.
The reality of how and why FGM happens is different to what people might think. It happens in lots of different ways – in and out of medical environments – but always for the same reason: to control a girl and to try to limit her.
FGM is an issue that most of us come across daily without knowing. The scars are not those you could point to without someone telling you their story or without you meeting them in a clinic as part of your job. The effects of FGM are hidden and you might be surprised at which women and girls who have undergone it.
I am a survivor of FGM, currently living in the too-hip-for-me area of Hackney in London. On my way to work or to “fanny about”, as I like to say, I meet hundreds of people. As I pick up my first coffee of the day, I pass bankers and lawyers – some of whom will have undergone FGM. Of course, nobody has any idea. Across the UK, we all cross paths with lots of different young women who have been subjected to FGM. Some of us wear skinny jeans, some don’t. Some are worried about little things like “now I am 30, should I still be shopping in H&M?”, others bigger things like “where can I get help to address the physical or psychological pain of FGM?”.
I first started talking about my fanny in 2008, but had started campaigning to end FGM two years earlier. That was the year I met 14 EU-born girls in an inner-city school in Bristol. They were all 13 years old and all but one of them had been cut. The guilt I felt that day is just easing.
I saw in their faces the pain that my silence had caused. They, like me 15 years before, had been failed by the place they called home and people they had looked up to.
Their fannies were as British as mine and my silence was part of that failure. In not standing up and saying it had happened to girls like me (I had a stupid lip ring at the time – don’t ask) I allowed the misconception to carry on. To be honest, that day I felt like a kid. I felt the same fear, anger and confusion as they did, but it was the wake-up call I needed to do what I do now.
A few years later, in 2010, things changed again, after I met a 21-year-old London girl who thought she was all alone and no one else had been subjected to the type of FGM she had.
As I held her hand, I told her it would be OK. She asked: “How do you know?” In that moment, I told her all I had ever wanted to hear. The words came out like water out of a tap. Because I’d had the same form of FGM, I was able to be the same as her and see myself from the outside. I told her that FGM does not define her, that she is amazing and that she will rise above it.
Lines like “parents do it out of love”, “we need to understand, not judge” or “it is part of their culture” are why FGM has taken so long to end. We need to start thinking about the girl and woman that is at the centre of the discussion. She is the same as you.
What happened to her was wrong, but there is nothing wrong with her. She has just passed you in the street, on the way to H&M, to return something which was too yoof for her, but she bought anyway. She does not need your pity, but she does need you to stand with her, to give support if you can and to help her break the cycle for generations to come.
Nimco aka Nimko is a feminist and anti FGM activist, she is co-founder of Daughters of Eve and Currently working for The Girl Generation. @nimkoali