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The African Women Who Are Turning Their Backs on FGM

Posted: 01/07/2013 00:00

"I wanted to save lives not put them at risk."

That's what a former female genital cutter told me during a visit to Kenya last week, as she explained why she downed her tools and instead became a birth attendant.

I believe this woman should be celebrated for taking such a brave stance against the centuries-old tradition of female genital mutilation (FGM).

And she's not alone. In her home of Meru, Kenya there are now hundreds of women who deserve the same praise for abandoning the practice of FGM in their small community.

Kenya took the vital step of making female genital mutilation illegal in 2011 - also known as female genital cutting - but it is not just the laws or the threat of punishment that has brought about this amazing change.

It is the simple truth that has persuaded these women that there is no benefit to harming your daughter's body. As one mother told me: "FGM does not make a woman strong - it makes her weak. Why would we defile our bodies?"

With the help of their local priest, the male council of elders and support from UN agencies, communities are being educated about the consequences of FGM - consequences which leave girls permanently scarred, often disabled and can kill.

Traditionally, it was seen as a rite of passage as teenage girls took their place as women in society. But instead of cutting, this community marks their journey to womanhood with an 'alternative rite of passage'. When they turn 13, they are taught about their bodies, relationships with boys, careers and FGM - but there is not a knife or scalpel in sight.

This is often the first they realise what the practice involves - a practice experienced by their mothers, grandmothers and generations before them.

A group of three 13-year-olds, who have been through the 'alternative rite of passage', told me how they were terrified when they learnt about FGM and the relief that they will not go through that pain is palpable.

They are now telling their friends about the programme, which has helped increase the numbers of girls taking part since it was introduced three years ago. One thing they are all certain that their children will never go through it and so the cycle spanning hundreds of years is finally ended for this group.

In the grand scheme of the UK's support for the African-led ambition to end FGM in a generation, this may seem like a minor victory. And we still have a long way to go with nearly a third of Kenyan women having been cut.

But this community has reduced FGM from 27% to just 7%. This might be 7% too many but we are making huge progress.

This matters to the UK too with 200,000 people of Kenyan origin living in the UK. If FGM is abandoned in their mother countries, we can destroy the chance that girls will be sent back to their place of origin to be cut.

The NSPCC FGM helpline announced this week is a massive step forward in tackling the practice here at home. But to make sure girls across the UK are truly safe from this cruel practice, and eradicate FGM for good, we also need an international effort to tackle it at the source, which is predominantly Africa.

There is now strong African leadership and real momentum for change on the continent. Increasing numbers of communities, traditional and religious leaders, national policy-makers and other high-profile champions are working to end FGM. These efforts were given a new level of legitimacy with the passing of a UN General Assembly resolution in December 2012, led by the Africa Group, calling for a global ban to the practice.

The UK is getting behind these efforts to make sure this unprecedented opportunity to end FGM isn't missed. Our £35million fund will help communities across Africa get the support they need to reject this barbaric practice.

Click here to
find out more about the UK's work to help end FGC within a generation

 

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