When the moment finally arrived, Leyla Hussein was asleep. Since July last year, along with her anti-FGM colleagues, she's been tirelessly campaigning to secure the 100,000 signatures necessary to qualify her petition for a Parliamentary debate on Female Genital Mutilation. Then at about 4am on Friday morning, the campaign finally crossed that particular finishing line.
'I tried staying up but it got really late and when I woke Twitter was going crazy with people saying congratulations,' Hussein says. 'It's been incredibly emotional. I've cried a lot. I meet with survivors every week and we discuss how we can live with the scars of FGM. Because you can't get rid of them, they're always there. You just have to learn how to live with it. But we won't let it take control of our lives. That's part of what the petition's about - claiming back control.'
(photo copyright Leyla Hussein)
FGM is the mutilation of the genitalia of young women and girls for non-medical reasons. It is a practice condemned by the UN and virtually every major international human rights organisation. It has been a crime in the UK since 1985. However, despite the fact that many thousands of girls in the UK have been mutilated, there has not been a single prosecution. This glaring failure is one of the central drivers of Hussein's campaign.
'We started a petition because it's all very well people, activists, running around trying to publicise this issue, but we also need the people in power to take notice, need the decision-makers to make it a priority.'
Support for Hussein's campaign has come from many quarters. The petition has been promoted by Richard Dawkins, Kirsty Allsopp from Location, Location, Location and Dr Christian Jessen from Embarrassing Bodies. But in addition what has particularly touched Hussein is the support from ten of thousands of ordinary people from all over the country, 'People I've never met face to face,' she says. 'We came together as human beings. Our differences of race, gender, class were not an issue. Everyone came together to stop this practice and protect children who have no say in being violated.'
More girls at risk than suspected
This groundswell of public support could not have arrived at a more opportune moment. The report 'The Unpunished Crime', launched this week by journalist and researcher Julie Bindel, reached the conclusion that the previous estimate that there were 24,000 UK girls at risk of FGM is a serious underestimate.
Bindel and her team have analysed the most recent statistical and population data and have concluded that there are 65,000 girls under the age of 13 at risk of FGM in the UK. It is Hussein's objective to find better ways to protect this group of vulnerable girls and young women.
Her campaign target four prime objectives. She is determined to highlight the abject lack of prosecutions; demand mandatory training for frontline professionals working with women and children; create a legal requirement of mandatory reporting where there is a well-founded suspicion of risk of FGM; and develop specialist support services for FGM survivors.
Human Rights violation
The practice Hussein and her colleagues aim to eradicate is a complex, deeply embedded one. It is a traditional practice dating back many hundreds of years (and possibly millennia), but is not explicitly prescribed by any religious text. It constitutes an act of gender violence inflicted on young women and girls that disfigures them physically and mentally for the rest of their lives.
However, one of the problems presented by FGM is that it is a highly elusive crime. It occurs in communities that are mobile and often marginalised. Girls may be mutilated in the UK or taken back to the countries of their family origin, a practice known as 'vacation cutting'. All this makes prevention and detection more difficult, particularly with the shroud of secrecy that has historically surrounded this cultural practice.
But we need to be clear about what FGM actually is. It is a fundamental violation of the human rights of the child. That is the stance of the United Nations, UNESCO and UNICEF. This conclusion is, frankly, unarguable. But the question of FGM's elimination is a problem of a wholly different order.
Asserting that a right exists is one thing; protecting and enforcing that right another. Criminal prosecutions of mutilators and those who collude in the violation of the child will unquestionably be a step forward. Not only will such a stance have some deterrent effect, but it is a potent and public symbolic act. It expresses a collective determination to oppose this unnecessary damage to children. It is an act of communal solidarity with FGM's survivors.
As Hussein, who was mutilated when she was 7 years old, says, 'The petition has helped. It's acknowledged to me and other survivors that we are not alone, that we were violated as children. It's acknowledged our pain.' The purpose of the growing campaign against FGM in the UK is to ensure that of those 65,000 girls at risk, as many as possible are protected.
It is premature - and unduly complacent - to conclude that a deeply entrenched traditional practice like FGM can be eradicated instantly. But with every signature, petition, tweet, blog, email and article, the momentum grows and more girls are likely to be protected.
So the 100,000 signature target is only the first in a series of finishing lines in the fight against FGM. However, for Leyla Hussein and her colleagues is an extraordinary accomplishment and one that should not be underestimated. Every steps counts; every advance is another child that might be saved.
Dexter Dias QC is a barrister practising in Human Rights law in London, a Researcher at Harvard University and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Cambridge.
• The NSPCC's free 24-hour FGM helpline can be contacted at 0800 028 3550.
• The intercollegiate group of Royal Colleges report Tackling FGM in the UK can be found at www.rcm.org.uk/college/policy-practice/joint-statements-and-reports/
• Julie Bindel's report The Unpunished Crime can be found at www.justiceforfgmvictims.co.uk