A poster warns about the danger of female genital mutilation in Burkina Faso. Photo by: Jessica Lea / DFID / CC BY

I was born in Hargeisa, Somaliland, but grew up in the United Kingdom. Like 98% of Somali girls, I underwent female genital mutilation, commonly referred to as FGM. I was on holiday in Djibouti in East Africa at the time. I was only seven years old.

Efforts to end FGM have been ramped up significantly in the last 10 years or so. It is now seen as a major global issue relating to gender equality, a serious human rights violation, and an extreme form of violence and discrimination against women and girls. When I told my teacher that I had been cut she told me that it happened to “girls like me.” I am confident that if the same thing happened today I would not be ignored.

However, there is still so much to do if we are to really end it within this generation.

Unless every single country bans FGM and implements that ban, it will continue to be a major challenge to end it within the next decade.

— Nimco Ali, CEO, The Five Foundation

According to UNICEF, there are over 200 million survivors of FGM in the world, while 68 million girls are at risk of it between now and 2030. And these numbers are likely to increase as we get more data. FGM is a global issue; it affects communities as far apart as the Embera tribe in Colombia, tens of millions of women and girls in Indonesia, and over two dozen countries on the African continent.

One of the biggest challenges is that, in some countries, doctors, midwives, and other medical personnel carry out FGM. This “medicalization” — and legitimization — is most common in Egypt, where 75% of it is carried out by doctors. In the country, 27.2 million women and girls have been affected by FGM — the second-highest number in the world, after Indonesia. This is a very dangerous trend.

How to increase momentum to end FGM

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Although the issue has now reached the front pages of newspapers and is seen as a key global issue, a severe lack of funding continues to be the most important challenge related to ending FGM. Grassroots activists receive almost no funding at all.

Avert, an organization that provides information and research on HIV/AIDS estimates that $20.61 billion was available to tackle HIV/AIDS in 2017, while UNAIDS’ research showed that 37.9 million people were affected around the same time. This means that — and this is the lowest estimate of several available — $544 was available per person affected that year, while an internal study from The Five Foundation, the global partnership to end FGM, found that in the case of FGM, only $1-$2 was donated last year for each woman or girl affected or at risk.

These issues are not directly linked, but there is clearly a massive difference in terms of their prioritization by foundations and other donors. Even those which focus on gender equality do not typically seem to include funding to end FGM.

Robust, evidence-based approaches needed to end FGM

One of the countries that has been most successful in relation to ending FGM is Kenya. Prevalence has been reduced from over 40% for middle-aged women to 11% for teenage girls. This momentum has been fueled by President Kenyatta’s recent commitment to eliminate FGM within the next two years.

However, Kenya has not received much funding to do this — and grassroots groups such as the Samburu Girls Foundation, founded by Dr. Josephine Kulea, have been forced to operate on a shoestring.

Meanwhile, in West Africa, we have seen much higher levels of investment to Senegal, but, according to UNICEF, FGM has not reduced there in recent years. More research is needed to see if the “community declarations” model is sustainable after the program is finished. We know that frontline activists also need to have more robust frameworks for monitoring and evaluating their work so that donors can have better evidence-based approaches which deliver lasting impact.

Some countries with significant prevalence of FGM have still not banned it. In West Africa, it is still legal in Mali, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, which have 83%, 86%, and 44% prevalence respectively according to UNICEF, the organization that collates Demographic and Health Surveys. In East Africa, Somalia, Somaliland, and Sudan have not banned it either, even though these have a prevalence of over 90%. Neighboring countries are significantly affected also, with families crossing borders to have it carried out where it is still legal to do so.

Unless every single country bans FGM and implements that ban, it will continue to be a major challenge to end it within the next decade.

What women on the ground are doing to change things

One of the most important things we need to do differently is to support those many mainly survivor activists who are leading the global conversation on ending FGM. They have risked their lives in many cases to speak out against the norm. In some cases, this means losing friends and family members.

Around the world, there are so many role models — women such as Jaha Dukureh, founder of Safe Hands for Girls in The Gambia and Kulea in Kenya. These women have huge influence at the local level, and such credible people within communities are best placed to change from the roots up.

However, the voices of women are also vital for elevating the issue globally. We stand on the shoulders of women like Edna Adan in Somaliland and Efua Dorkenoo in the U.K. and Ghana who started the conversation several decades ago.

These women changed how we talked about FGM, while younger survivor activists are now changing how we work to end it. They speak with power and credibility within communities, alongside government members, to the media, and publicly to empower women and girls. And it is working.

My hope for the future is that we can build on this momentum and keep promoting and leveraging support for women like these. I am calling directly on donors — particularly large foundations — to take notice and to think differently about how to end FGM and fund a better future for all of the world’s girls.

Grassroots activists know what they are doing and are fine-tuning their approaches all the time to ensure maximum impact. Awareness of FGM is one thing, but without an increase in global funding, we will not see an end to this devastating abuse in our lifetimes.

Call for participants: Women in Dev

The author, Nimco Ali, will be speaking at Women in Dev, a women-led and women-focused international development conference that will be held in the run-up to International Women’s Day 2020, uniting women to drive change in the development space.

This article is part of our op-ed series #GlobalDevWomen, where we hear from leaders in the sector on key themes around women’s leadership, #AidToo, and empowerment in practice, in the run-up to International Women’s Day. 

About the author

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    Nimco Ali OBE

    Nimco Ali OBE is CEO of The Five Foundation, the global partnership to end female genital mutilation.