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02 May 2014

Who will speak for FGM victims?

Who will speak for FGM victims?

Once a successful HR professional in the city Ann-Marie Wilson suddenly found herself becoming a global advocate, talking with African tribal leaders, lobbying national governments and liaising with the UN.

Lucy Cooper finds out how her life took a dramatic turn when she met a little girl in Sudan and how this led to a worldwide campaign to end female genital mutilation.

“It started with a particular encounter in Sudan in 2005 – and literally changed my life,” she said. 

“I remember going back to my church afterwards and telling them what I felt called to do. ‘It’s far too dangerous, you can’t possibly do that,’ they told me. 

“We negotiated and I started my journey,” Ann-Marie recollects. 

Now the face behind 28 Too Many, she is at the forefront of a massive global issue – one which has increasingly gained publicity following the announcement of the first prosecutions against FGM in the UK in March. 

At the time of her first trip, it was no surprise there were concerns for her safety. Advocates against female genital mutilation (FGM) were being reportedly kidnapped, cut or even killed in some countries around the world. 

So what caused Ann-Marie to risk it all, give up a successful psychology and counselling business and completely retrain for an entirely different challenge?

While working with Medair in Sudan, West Darfur, I met an 11-year-old girl with her baby,” said Ann-Marie. “She had been cut at five years old as part of normal tradition in her community. A year before meeting me, armed Janjaweed militia rampaged through her community raping and killing most of the village. She had survived and was left raped, pregnant with all of her family burned and killed. 

“That moment changed everything for me. She was an orphan, a child and an unmarried mother and had no elders to defend her. ‘Who will speak up for her?’ I asked myself. ‘Maybe I could in some way?’ This was my Esther moment. ‘What if you have brought me to this place for such a time as this, Lord?’” 

FGMAnn-Marie realises the practice is influenced by strong yet ludicrous myths which exist in communities. One example is that women are oversexed so their clitoris needs to be removed, or that if not cut, the woman’s parts would grow to the ground. 

“In a Somali refugee camp they believed this and there I was in my full length skirt saying: ‘I promise I haven’t got one of those, I think I would have noticed by now. The girls giggle, but standing up to these myths is vital.’” 

FGM can cause mild to life-threatening health problems interfering with natural bodily functions and often causing severe pain, bleeding, septic shock, infertility, fistula, infections, childbirth complications and sometimes, death. 

Gaining an understanding of the background, causes and issues when beginning to tackle it is crucial. For her it involved studying basic midwifery in Pakistan, fistula surgery in Nigeria and then Islamic, gender and anthropology studies at All Nations College. Her ongoing work is under the umbrella of the Church Mission Society (CMS) and she is on Tearfund’s Inspiring Individuals scheme.

“To begin with I thought that there must be loads of people addressing FGM and all I needed to do was join them – but then I realised this wasn’t the case. I wanted passionately to get to the root of the problem, change the beliefs of the people and eradicate this abuse globally. Quite a big dream!” 

Due to the size of such an undertaking, Ann-Marie decided when setting up her organisation in 2010 to focus on the 28 countries in Africa where they practise FGM – hence the name 28 Too Many. 

The practice is not specific to certain religions. In Kenya, groups involved are Somali Muslims, Kisi Christians and the Masai. 

“I wanted passionately to get to the root of the problem, change the beliefs of the people and eradicate this abuse globally.”

The principle task now for 28 Too Many is to continue with community-based research on the ground in African countries. With extensive surveys complete in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia, 28 Too Many presents its findings to governments and the Church to help beat and end such a horrific problem. 

“We offer the research which often, due to fragmentation, they are grateful for. Then we support. After all, they come from the culture and they speak the language and it is important to be culturally relevant.”

In this advocacy work Ann-Marie has supported House of Lords debates and worked alongside Department for International Development, the Home Office, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the UK African diaspora to tackle FGM where it happens here. 

“It’s a problem here too. Around 20,000 girls are at risk in the UK each year with 70,000 already affected and living with the often very damaging consequences and needing specialist NHS services. 

“We’ve had a law against it here since 1985 but it’s hard to prosecute because you can’t really get young girls prosecuting their own parents. If social workers, teachers, police, court system and faith bodies don’t call it child abuse then people won’t take it seriously. If they call it a cultural practice there is a danger of bending over backwards in order to be culturally sensitive.”

Ann-Marie has to overcome the significant embarrassment factor regardless of the audience, believing a taboo is no excuse for not addressing abuse. “It is a notoriously secretive practice with sufferers having little opportunity to discuss it. Only through education and dialogue can many people see that it is really harmful.” 

She added: “When I have crazy times in Africa sleeping alongside chickens and girls I sometimes wonder what I let myself in for. This journey is costly and harder than I could have ever imagined but God is calling me to be a change.” 


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