As Head of ActionAid UK I have witnessed and heard many tragic stories around the world. Sometimes it would be easier to pretend they are not happening - to keep quiet and just deal with the immediate needs. But that is not ActionAid's way.
Today is a day you've probably never heard of - The International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. Talking about this difficult subject might make us uncomfortable, but we should feel more uncomfortable with doing nothing, because for millions of women and girls - an estimated 140 million in fact - uncomfortable doesn't come anywhere close to describing the physical and psychological trauma of having their genitals removed.
Hearing about the harrowing experience of 17 year old Christine, reinforces that this brutal practice actually damages the life chances of girls, as well as their health and well-being. Christine is from a pastoralist region in West Pokot, Kenya, and was mutilated at the age of 15 before being married off to a much older man. She told us:
"When the time came for the marriage ceremony, his relatives and some guards carried me away. I didn't want to go and cried. I was forced to stay inside his home for a week. The old man had a wife before me, too. She was much older and just treated me like one of her children.
"On my first night in the house with the old man we were left alone together. He forced himself on me and I felt so much pain that I cried. The other wife was waiting at the door and he asked her to come in so that she could make me bigger using a cow's horn. The eldest daughter of the man also came in to help. It was very shaming and I felt sad afterwards. It made me feel dirty and was very painful."
Sadly this isn't a rare occurrence. Christine is just one of 3 million girls at risk of mutilation in Africa each year. Communities living in poverty tend to be unaware of the harmful impact of female genital mutilation, and many parents and children may not even realise that the practice is illegal where they live, as it is in Kenya. Girls are cut because it is seen as rite of passage which prepares them for marriage and it is common for a man to refuse to marry a girl or young woman who has not been subjected to this practice.
Christine is now safe. She escaped her forced marriage and sought refuge in a nearby primary school in Kongelei, whose staff contacted ActionAid. By working with the Kongelai Women's Network, ActionAid was able to help Christine find a place at school. She now lives in a boarding house and is rebuilding a relationship with her family. She said:
"I tell other girls that they shouldn't do it and to tell their families that there is now a law to protect them. My hope for the future is that no girls in Pokot have to go through what I went through. I think this is possible - we just need more time and education."
Today on Zero Tolerance Day, and every other day, ActionAid provides direct support to women and girls escaping mutilation, reaching thousands of survivors in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Somaliland and Uganda through our girls' clubs and rescue centres. I am inspired by the stories of change we are seeing involving men as well as women. Atuko Lodyonghole is a 64-year-old father living in the West Pokot region of Kenya. Having seen the impact of female genital mutilation on his two eldest daughters, he now speaks out against it in his community and refuses to let his other daughters be cut. This is the change that we need to see happen - for everyone to support one common aim - to eradicate this.
Cutting away a girl's genitals for no medical reason is a clear violation of her human rights - a violation that we must all oppose. We must tackle the underlying problem for good which means speaking out, generating the will and pressure for change and actively getting behind local people who are on the front line working for change. This is a fight we can win. With everyone on board, we can #EndFGM in our lifetime
Click here to find out what you can do to support ActionAid's work to end female genital mutilation.Suggest a correction