Today is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. It is a vital date for London not least because in the UK an estimated 103,000 women have undergone FGM and 20,000 girls are at risk.
Ending FGM within this generation is possible. This government deserves credit for prioritising the issue and breaking the silence on this taboo, an approach that a Labour government would seek to build on.
But while FGM has been illegal in the UK for more than 30 years, laws alone will never solve the issue. The limitations of the law are clear from the fact that no British court has ever prosecuted a doctor accused of carrying out FGM. Almost no such cases make it even that far: expecting a young girl to report her parents for getting her cut is usually unrealistic.
Britain’s approach to this issue needs to change if we are to stop it affecting the lives of another generation of women. Dynamic young Somali women like Amina Ali from Tower Hamlets are organising within their communities to speak out about the dangers and psychological harm of cutting.
It is not easy. Julia Lalla-Maharajh, the inspirational CEO of the UK-based Orchid Project, told me that the practice of cutting women originated during the time of the Pharaohs. It is embedded as a community tradition and it is difficult for one individual or family to act alone.
The whole community needs to be engaged in the decision to collectively abandon FGM. Communities need space to understand more about the human rights of women and girls and to talk openly about FGM. And here, London and the UK could learn a few lessons from Africa.
For example Tostan, an NGO working in Dakar, Senegal helped a community to turn its back on FGM. They facilitated classroom sessions, with two groups – one for adults and one for teenagers, to ensure that younger and older generations were comfortable participating. Local religious, traditional and community leaders shared their experiences of FGM and backed a programme for change.
The results there are now clear. The proportion of girls who have been cut, whose mothers had been cut, fell by nearly 70 per cent in just five years. These figures show a profound change in attitude. Entire communities are choosing to stop FGM. Mothers who were cut as children are rejecting the practice for their daughters.
Tostan’s approach has now been integrated into various national and international strategies, including those of the International Donor Working Group on FGM. UNICEF has endorsed this model as constituting best practice for ending FGM.
We must seize the opportunity to empower millions of women and girls around the world. For a long time international development has been seen as something ‘we’ do to the rest of the world. That is an outdated worldview which must be broken down. London and the rest of the UK should learn the lessons from others and look to the community-based approaches being developed in other parts of the world. We have the opportunity to bring an end to FGM within the next generation. Senegal – and Amina Ali – might just show us how to do it.