FGM - 'An Act of Love'

This week, David Cameron hosts the Girl Summit 2014.... The spirit of all this is all very estimable. An estimated 66,000 women in the UK and 125million around the world have been cut and more are at risk. Unfortunately, it could easily turn out to be counter-productive.

When Jay Kamara Frederick was 14, she was taken from her home in Shepherd's Bush to Sierra Leone. She'd been told the visit was to see her father's grave. In fact, she was being taken to be cut.

Her mother hinted that she'd be joining a female secret society. She was taken shopping and bought new clothes and presents. The atmosphere was celebratory. She had no idea what was really happening until she was taken into a room, told to take off her clothes and held down on the floor. She passed out from the pain and was unconscious, she believes, for a long while. 'When I came to, my mother was standing over me. She looked broken and devastated. She was asking, "do you want to live? You'd better fight.'"'

This week, David Cameron hosts the Girl Summit 2014. Heads of state and development dignitaries will converge on London for an event backed by the UK government and Unicef, which is aimed at ending forced marriage and what the United Nations calls female genital mutilation (FGM). The spirit of all this is all very estimable. An estimated 66,000 women in the UK and 125million around the world have been cut and more are at risk. Unfortunately, it could easily turn out to be counter-productive.

For Jay Kamara Frederick, the term female genital mutilation is deeply offensive. 'I don't think anyone has the right to call anyone else mutilated. It's so derogatory. I've had doctors tell me I've been mutilated and I have walked out of their surgeries. Calling it FGM is a way of keeping strong women down. It keeps people in bondage to their own pain and suffering.'

Whether we like it or not, female genital cutting is an act of love. It is often carried out to ensure that a young woman will get a good husband, be admired, respected and cherished by her community. In some parts of the world where it is prevalent, a woman who is not cut will be shunned. Other women will get up and walk out when she comes into a room. Clothes she has cleaned will be washed again.

It is counter-productive to tell people that an aspect of their culture they regard as profoundly important and proof of a family's care for its daughters is barbaric. It only makes people defensive. Jay doesn't talk to her mother about what happened in Sierra Leone. For a long time she didn't speak of it to anyone. Yet it never made her stop loving her family. 'I respect my mum wholeheartedly. She's still the person I'd turn to if I needed help.'

Jay's cutting was 'one of the most painful and frightening experiences imaginable. The feeling of being in that room will never leave me. I will never forget the smells, the sound, the pain.' Her legs were bound for a couple of weeks. Eventually she returned to London and resumed her life as a schoolgirl, though her teens were scarred by an eating disorder, OCD, agoraphobia and depression. She didn't manage to grapple psychologically with what had happened to her until she was in her twenties.

There is another way of addressing FGC, which doesn't involve denigrating people's dearly-held beliefs. The Tostan project in Senegal has had remarkable success, as a result of which more than three million people live in communities that have voluntarily and publicly declared an end to cutting. Tostan achieves this by running a three-year community empowerment programme, which includes not only women's health, but also democracy, human rights, literacy, numeracy and income generation.

When the government of Senegal passed a law outlawing FGC in 1997, against Tostan's advice, 100 girls in one province were cut the next day in protest. It doesn't help to tell people that they are mutilating their daughters or that the practice is cruel and has to stop.

'Even though I am one of thousands of women who have undergone the cut, I can't tell other people to stop doing it,' Kamara Frederick says. 'What is called FGM is actually many different practices, which involve different social norms. You can't change a social norm by scorning it or being high-handed about it.'

Kamara Frederick is now an ambassador for the Orchid Project, a UK-based organisation that seeks to deploy Tostan's human rights based approach to tackle FGC by providing the kind of educational and human rights information that inspires communities to reflect on how they organise themselves and why.

Stigmatising women who have been cut doesn't help them. It certainly doesn't stop the practice. FGC will only stop when communities want to stop it - and that's unlikely to be because Westerners have told them that their social norms are backward and benighted. Let's hope that the Girl Summit will reach this conclusion. But if Jay and other women like her are mortally offended by its terminology, it has a long way to go.

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