FGM refers to any alteration of female genitalia that is done for a non-medical purpose. It typically entails removing the labia and/or the clitoris, often with a razor blade and without anaesthesia. In many instances, the opening to the vagina is also sewn almost entirely closed. It’s a serious act of violence against women and girls – one that is happening on a much greater scale than most people are aware of.
According to the UN, roughly 200,000,000 women worldwide are survivors of FGM. The procedure can lead to a variety of complications including infections, infertility, and an increased risk of stillbirth. According to the Desert Flower Foundation, a third of those who are forced to undergo FGM will die as a result of complications from the procedure. In countries like Somalia and Guinea, more than 95% of women and girls are forced to undergo FGM, but this horrifying practice is not limited to Africa. Hundreds of thousands of women and girls across the world have suffered FGM as well, despite it being illegal in a vast number of countries.
Thankfully, there are brave women like the ones listed below, who are doing everything they can to end this horrifying practice.
Assétou was born in Mali, where roughly 80% of all girls and women are subjected to FGM. She is a survivor of FGM, but it was watching her sister nearly die as the result of complications from the procedure that ultimately drove Assétou to become an activist. She began by making sure her own daughters were never subjected to FGM – no easy feat given her own husband’s resistance. Eventually however, she won him over and soon she began wandering if she could win others over as well. This led her to become an educator, going from family to family and teaching them about the dangers of FGM. She asks parents to sign a pledge, vowing never to subject their daughters to this violence. To date, she has saved thousands of girls in Mali and her pledge gets roughly 100 new signatures each month.
Waris was born in Somalia, where 98% of all girls and young women are subjected to FGM. At five years old, she found herself lying in a shelter under a tree, praying to God that she wouldn’t bleed to death as a result of the procedure. She survived, but many of the other girls weren’t so lucky. Seven years later, Waris was told that she had been betrothed to a 60-year-old man, and unwilling to submit to the life that awaited her, she ran away. She ran for days in the desert heat before finally reaching family members who were able to help her escape. She then moved to London where she worked as a maid for nearly a decade before being discovered by a photographer. Shortly after that, she became a supermodel, her face on everything from a Chanel campaign to a Bond film. Her success gave her a platform from which to advocate for reform, and she has since dedicated her life to sharing her story and ending FGM. She is the founder of The Desert Flower Foundation, an organization that is fighting to stop FGM and support survivors. Her work with Desert Flower has garnered Waris a number of prestigious awards and partnerships including ambassadorships with the UN, UNICEF, and UNESCO.
Like Waris, Ifrah is also a survivor of FGM from Somalia. When she was seventeen, she fled the country and sought asylum in Ireland, but that didn’t stop her from working on behalf of the women in Somalia. She lobbied the Irish government, fighting for a bill that would help end FGM, and then she went on to lobby the European Parliament. She founded a charity dedicated to stopping FGM worldwide, and earlier this year, she convinced Somalia’s Prime Minister to sign a ban on FGM. She will now be serving as his adviser on FGM, and they will work together to eliminate the practice in her home country once and for all.
Leyla Hussein and Nimko Ali
When it comes to fighting FGM in the UK, perhaps no one is more visible than Leyla and Nimko, and with good reason. As the founders of Daughters of Eve, they’ve been instrumental in bringing FGM into the spotlight. Leyla is a Somali activist and therapist. Her documentary on FGM, The Cruel Cut, was nominated for a BAFTA and did a great deal to raise awareness about FGM. Nimko is an FGM survivor who has become the face of the anti-FGM movement in the UK since bravely deciding to share her story. It is not a position without risks. In fact, both women have received death threats as a result of their decisions to speak out, but they won’t be silenced. Together they continue their work supporting victims, lobbying lawmakers, and getting the public involved in the movement to end FGM.
Born in Gambia, Jaha experienced FGM as an infant. She lives in the US now, but she is tied to Gambian roots. Thanks to her campaign, Gambia banned FGM in 2015. She also launched a successful campaign in the US, which resulted in it becoming illegal for people to take girls out of the US in order to force them to undergo FGM. Her work has inspired a feature film about her life and led to her being placed on Time Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of 2016.