Today we Mark FGM Zero Tolerance Day - 6 February is a reminder that female genital mutilation is a global issue; it should not, however, be the only day we remember that. Sadly, every minute five girls undergo FGM. If it takes you a couple of minutes to read this blog, by the time you're finished 10 girls will or more have been irreversibly mutilated.
For me, this 6 February also marks the day I will start working as a consultant to a consortium funded by the Department for International Development (DfID) to end FGM within a generation. The Social Change Campaign will support increasing momentum in Africa to end FGM. Despite campaigning against this practice for the past 11 years, this is the first time I become involved in such an ambitious project.
I will be in great company in a consortium made up of leading anti-FGM campaigners Equality Now and Forward, Ogilvy Africa - the continent's leading communications agency - Advocacy International and Options Consultancy. With this, the largest ever investment to end FGM internationally, the UK hopes to mobilise a global movement to end this practice in the world. It was about time. However, this does not mean I am about to stop my efforts to end FGM in the UK. Nor should the UK government.
Although my work for the Social Change Campaign will be a first, it is one of a number of breakthroughs in my long-term work to end FGM that have happened in the past few months. When The Cruel Cut finally aired, it gave a voice to many survivors who were afraid to speak out. In 2014 I also finally made my dream of running a support group for FGM survivors come true. The Dahlia Project, a partnership between the Manor Gardens Advocacy Project and the Maya Centre, is the first safe space for survivors to deal with the emotional trauma of FGM in the EU. Although, in terms of scale, the Dahlia Project is the smallest of these successes, it is the one closest to my heart.
I became a psychotherapist when I first realised the effect FGM has had in my emotional wellbeing. I am no stranger to talking about this; one of the hardest aspects of FGM is learning to live with it as part of your life. Sometimes the emotional wounds are harder to heal than the physical.
This may come as a surprise to a lot of you, but I didn't endure the worse type of FGM. I underwent Type 2 FGM, not Type 3. That was the best my mother thought she could do to protect me: pay the cutter to perform Type 2 and lie about it to everyone.
Although the physical scarring was not as severe, emotionally I was violated. Many fail to understand that from the moment a child is grabbed and pinned down to a table, betrayed by those she trusts the most, she will carry emotional scars with her for the rest of her life.
Only after giving birth to my beautiful little girl, did I realise the extent of the trauma. An amazing practice nurse, who was also trained as a counsellor, dared to ask me the question everyone else avoided: "were you cut as a child?" My response was blunt "yes, I was, but I never had any issues with it." She didn't give up. She invited me to attend a presentation she was doing on FGM. Just before it started, she took me aside and warned me that I may feel distressed. "Don't worry about me," I said. "I'm fine with what's happened." Yet it only took a couple of slides before I began to feel sick and faint. I ran out of the room in tears though I couldn't understand why. I was okay with it, wasn't I? That's what I'd been telling myself my whole life. I also couldn't help shake the feeling of shame that came out of nowhere. The counsellor asked me if I've ever felt this way before. To my surprise, I answered I had: during my pregnancy and every time I had a smear test.
When dealing with the effects of FGM, our health services, GPs and hospitals, focus on the physical consequences, such as chronic urinary tract infections, painful periods and acute and chronic pelvic infections which can lead to infertility. The emotional and psychological effects are regularly ignored. Many FGM survivors also suffer from sexual dysfunction; this is an issue that needs to be tackled, especially by those who work in the mental health sector.
Yet therapy is the only chance to heal. It is the beginning of self-acceptance. From my own experience in seeking therapy, this was the only space I could finally acknowledge the violence I had endured by those I trusted most without feeling judged.
I was lucky to have the right services around me when I became pregnant. No one can go on this journey without specialist support. That is why I continue to offer counselling for women today, even when funding is scarce or non-existent. I can't turn women away. The Dahlia Project is my way of repaying what was given to me by that amazing counsellor. However, a small local project cannot meet the needs of the thousands of FGM survivors in the UK. Nor is it possible to ensure prevention without helping survivors understand the trauma they have endured. Women like me have had the idea that FGM is an act of love engraved in their psyche. They justify their trauma by believing that lie. Only if we begin to acknowledge the cruelty can we put an end to FGM.
Follow us on Twitter for updates @dahliaproject1, and watch my documentary The Cruel Cut on Channel 4oD, follow my campaign and that of other survivors to ensure there is an effective Action Plan to eliminate FGM in the UK.
Finally, please sign this very important petition. Your signature may save a girl from this horrific practice