• Leyla Hussein

Spotlight on: Ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in one generation

Sunday, 8 Mar 2020
To mark International Women’s Day 2020, we will publish a series of spotlight interviews with Options staff working on the front lines in the fight for gender equality. This piece features The Girl Generation's Global Ambassador and leading campaigner against female genital mutilation Leyla Hussein.

What made you dedicate your life to fight for ending FGM?

My involvement in the campaign to end FGM happened by coincidence. At the age of seven I underwent type II female genital mutilation (FGM). I didn’t know that there was anything wrong with FGM even though I mostly grew up in the  west. It was only because a health professional did their work and  asked me during routine postnatal screening about what happened to me as a child as I blacked out out whenever I was being examined vaginally and had had a difficult pregnancy.

This happened when I was 21  – by this time I had lived in the UK since I was 12. She asked: “I see you’re from Somalia, can I just check if you have undergone this practice?” And in the beginning I didn’t deny it and said that it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t have the worst time having undergone this practice. So up until this point I had idea that I was an FGM survivor. But that incident raised questions and started an internal conversation: If I feel like this, someone else has to feel like this too. I was mindful that someone else, another woman, another mother must feel that undergoing FGM is okay when it’s not. Her question made me realise that the blackouts I was experiencing were actually because of flashbacks to what I had experienced as a child.

And for me it wasn’t just about fighting FGM. I realised that FGM led to a broader conversation about why girls are being oppressed by society. I have a daughter and I wanted to protect my daughter from FGM. But while I was trying to do that I also realised what other issues she was dealing with - for example, our patriarchal system.

What does it take to end FGM?

First of all, there is a lot of pressure on communities to end FGM but it shouldn’t fall on them to do it. FGM is a political system so there has to be political will to end FGM and the patriarchal system that enables it. It is politicians that should protect children from harm and ensure child safeguarding. And they also need to raise awareness among communities on the negative consequences of FGM.

But there also needs to be a change in our education system, which has no respect for women and girls, in order to change people’s minds. We don’t talk about girls’ bodies and their basic human rights in schools. Just imagine what their lives would look like if we taught about them about their human rights at a very young age? I didn’t know about my basic human rights until I was in my 20s. That’s crazy.

FGM isn’t just a normative issue. Another crucial aspect is economic security, which is very much related to FGM prevalence. A lot of communities practise FGM because it enables them to marry off their daughters as early as possible, which removes the economic burden of having their daughters at home and means less money for them to spend. As part of my work with some communities through The Girl Generation, I found that once families understood that sending their daughters to school and providing them with an education that will enable them to get a job, which will improve the financial situation of the whole family, there was a ripple effect that made other families think: We should do the same!

So ending FGM requires political will, education and awareness, as well as economic security for families that allow them to send their girls to school instead of seeing FGM and marrying off their daughters as the only way to get by.  

In your role as a campaigner against FGM, what obstacles did you encounter along the way, specifically as a woman and women of colour?

I constantly receive death threats and trolling is a day to day issue. Just a week ago I received death and rape threats. As campaigners against FGM, we are at risk all the time. The other major obstacle is securing long-term funding for this work: How can we protect girls from harm if we don’t invest in their safety? Another obstacle I witness as an activist and psychotherapist dealing with survivors is also a lack of safe spaces for women and girls.

So when you receive death threats and are confronted with a lack of political will, support or funding it sometimes makes me wonder what the hell we are doing this for?

Another major obstacle in the early days was the complete lack of awareness around FGM. Producing our documentary ‘The Cruel Cut’ about FGM in the UK was crucial to our work because the public became outraged and this pushed the government to act.

What achievement are you most proud of?

I am most proud of introducing a mental health and wellbeing aspect into this work – not just clinically in a health but also in an advocacy setting - because I want us to be physically, psychologically and emotionally safe when we do our work. We have a long way to go so we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves.

I am also proud of seeing the Africa led movement become what it has become, of helping and advising on how to support and help it grow.

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