10 years ago I was volunteering with Medair, helping to provide emergency relief to refugees from the conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. This was where I met an 11 year old who changed my life. This girl had undergone female genital mutilation (FGM) aged 5, and then when she was 10 the Jangaweed militia swept through her village raping, killing and burning all the houses. Orphaned and homeless the girl survived and with help from aid workers made her way to the refugee camp where I was working. She was pregnant as a result of being raped and most likely both she and her baby would have died from the obstructed labour resulting from her young age and the FGM if not for the intervention of trained medical professionals at the camp.
This was the first time I came across FGM and was horrified that such a devastating practice was being carried out on girls and women. As I learnt more about it and the numbers of women affected (over 140 million worldwide) I couldn't understand why more wasn't known about FGM and why more wasn't being done to end it. I couldn't forget the young girl in Darfur and decided to focus my energies on supporting work to end FGM and to ensure the voices of those affected were heard, resulting in the creation of 28 Too Many in 2010 to undertake research and campaigns against FGM.
Since then, thanks to the efforts of many activists, FGM gone from being mostly taboo, rarely mentioned and not widely known about to being firmly on the international agenda and a recognised human rights abuse. In 2012 the United Nations (UN) adopted a landmark Resolution to Ban FGM Worldwide championed by UN members from Africa supported by the international community. Further international commitments were made at the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2013 and the inaugural Girl Summit in 2014.
This international effort is important in setting the agenda for change and for encouraging funding such as the ground breaking commitment of £35m to tackle FGM from the UK Government announced in 2013. However, FGM is a deep-rooted practice which has been taking place in many communities for hundreds and thousands of years. It is woven into everyday life and reinforced by many social customs. Those who resist the practice can face great hostility, exclusion from society and physical harm. Therefore lasting change to stop FGM will only take place when people stand together against the practice. This requires support for local initiatives which educate people about FGM and build commitment to abandon the practice across all sections of society.
As we celebrate this year's International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM on 6th February, I am delighted that 28 Too Many is about to embark on a project with partners the Maasai Cricket Warriors and Cricket Without Boundaries (CWB) to deliver an innovative new programme which uses cricket as the vehicle to work with local communities and engage and empower young people whilst also delivering important health and anti-FGM education. We will also be working with teachers, midwives and health workers so they can support the young people and help break the cycle of FGM. A combined team from the Warriors, CWB and 28 Too Many will be travelling to Laikipia on the 15th February.
The Warriors are an inspiring group of Maasai from Laikipia who have swapped their spears for cricket bats. As well as building competitive cricket teams, the Warriors are using cricket development in rural Maasailand to empower young people and tackle social injustice. They campaign on a range of health and social issues including HIV/AIDS , FGM and empowering girls and women. CWB and the Warriors have been working together for several years. Since 2011 CWB have run four programmes in Laikipia and all the Warrior cricket coaches were trained by CWB.
In parallel with 28 Too Many, the journey for CWB also began 10 years ago when its three founder trustees started a charity to share their passion for cricket and to set up a sports development programme which also delivered life-saving HIV/AIDS awareness in Africa and brought together and empowered communities to make positive change. Since then CWB has coached over 130,000 children in more than 9 countries and over 3,000 adults have been trained as cricket coaches. Their team of enthusiastic volunteers work in partnership with local cricket authorities supporting and encouraging cricket development alongside social good. One of the ways CWB use cricket for social good is by empowering girls and women. All their coaching programmes include girls and boys, playing together in mixed teams to encourage mutual respect. This is also important in our work tackling FGM where women and men, girls and boys all need to work together to end the practice.
Looking back to my time in Sudan and first learning about FGM, little did I realise that this would lead me to learning how to play cricket. Sport is a powerful force in bringing people together, promoting well-being and improving our communities. It will be a busy and challenging week to launch the programme and it is privilege to be invited to take part and offer our support to those working against FGM and for a better future for all young people in the Maasai.
Ann-Marie Wilson founded 28 Too Many in 2010, a charity working to end FGM and protect future generations of girls. Please visit www.28toomany.com for more information.