I'm An Activist And Survivor: Now We Must Scale Up Efforts To End FGM

To eradicate FGM and other harmful traditional practices we will have to be able to provide and access comprehensive sexuality education, interventions which are among the primary targets of what the Trump administration is proposing.
Sala Lewis/Irish Aid/PA Archive

Since my earliest childhood memories I have heard my mother saying, "To know where you are going you have to know where you came from". As a young African girl from the diaspora, born in Ethiopia to Senegalese parents, and who grew up in Belgium with annual summers in the Southern Senegalese province of Casamance, I was always very conscious of my privileged status.

I knew I was privileged because my parents believed in girls' education, modern conservatism and monogamy. My dad was also a salaried professional translator who could afford my siblings and my fees to a semi-private school in Belgium. Privileged I was again because I was raised to be humble, generous, respect my elders and listen to their wisdom, but also to construct and voice my own opinions, be truthful and worship knowledge, Pan-Africanism, solidarity and freedom. Privileged finally, because both my parents were children of much respected Muslim leaders, and as expatriates had a certain status within the community and the family back home.

So when I chose to study human rights law and later decided to work specifically on gender justice and women's rights, I felt like this was a natural calling. I did not realise when becoming a very young focal point for women's rights at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa that this would change my life.

Indeed, working daily to end violence against women in all its forms in Africa, I started thinking about the fact that what I had never really questioned for 26 years and accepted as one unpleasant episode of my childhood was actually far more than that: I was a survivor of FGM with a master's degree.

At that time I convinced myself that my narrative did not have its place next to the terrible stories I was hearing from young girls and women of the continent so I did not come forward. It took me four years to confide in fellow regional and global activists and four more to state it publicly.

I came forward for a broad range of reasons. But one important one was that I felt that the response being given to FGM in the interventions of the INGOs, UN agencies and others was based on an incomplete picture: the idea that the practice of FGM happened in communities where poor illiterate parents caving to their patriarchal views willingly send their daughters to get mutilated or die.

I wanted fellow activists and the world to understand that the difficulty with ending FGM is that it has as many narratives as survivors and victims. The only common element to our stories is the fact that this is an unjustifiable horrendous practice which violates everything we stand for as humans, wherever we find ourselves, whatever our culture or religion.

This is why I have always been very vocal against attempts to romanticise the nature of FGM for political correctness, or some misplaced attachment to Africa as the motherland. Just last week, I heard in a meeting here in Dakar a well-meaning African American journalist talking about FGM as FGC (female genital cutting) and I cringed. We were not cut, we were mutilated. No one dies of a cut but girls die because of the mutilation to their body.

Thinking that next year we will celebrate 15 years since the day when the first lady of Nigeria, Stella Obasanjo first declared "zero tolerance to FGM" and launched what is now a global campaign, I am disappointed both as a survivor and as an activist. I am outraged and appalled that every year three million girls in Africa are at risk of undergoing FGM, that very few perpetrators and accomplices are prosecuted under the laws that criminalize the practice, and that success stories are celebrated without the allocation of proper resources to sustain them and replicate them.

Thankfully, individual activists and NGOs like Equality Now, the IAC-HP, FORWARD, ActionAid and others have been working tirelessly to support local and community based efforts to end FGM. In Senegal, ActionAid for instance has supported the establishment of 17 Women's Watch Committees, collaborating with local authorities to report cases of FGM and early forced marriage. They also train women, girls, local partners and engaged leaders to become paralegals to fight against abuse and harmful traditional practices including FGM.

The fact that ActionAid shares our quest for the end of impunity by supporting our National Women's Lawyers Association to advocate for the Senegalese Government to better address the issue of gender-based violence by criminalizing acts and overseeing the implementations of laws and policies, is crucial.

These achievements are not easily maintained and my most sincere hope at the moment is that the reinstatement of the global gag rule and more generally, the rise of conservative leaders in major donor countries will not impact negatively the scaling up of such valid programmes and efforts to accelerate actions towards ending FGM.

To eradicate FGM and other harmful traditional practices we will have to be able to provide and access comprehensive sexuality education, interventions which are among the primary targets of what the Trump administration is proposing.

Find out more about ActionAid's work to end FGM.


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