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The Sum Of Its Parts: Tackling breaches of women’s and girls’ sexual health rights holistically

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Nimco Ali OBE

“When considering the case for ending child marriage, one must include the case for ending FGM.” – Nimco Ali OBE, Whitehall, London, 11 June 2019)

At Women Deliver 2019 held in June in Vancouver, Nice Leng’ete, a Masai tribeswoman, shared her story on stage to an audience of women from different backgrounds, and each one was left moved by her story. The story of how she and her 10-year-old sister (she was 8 at the time) escaped “being cut”, and who eventually, after a very patient journey managed to convince the male elders of her community to stop the practice. 

Leng’ete’s activism has since helped save 17,000 girls from FGM, and her method of achieving this has been through driving community education and demonstrating that there are alternative “rites of passage.” Now, instead of being cut, the “blessing” these girls receive from their elders is to be educated before getting married and having children.  She was named as one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2018. 

After the Vancouver women’s summit, another very important event took place with two very specific subjects concerning women and girls: the first Africa Summit on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and Child Marriage held in Dakar, Senegal between June 16 to 18, 2019. There were over 500 people from over 20 countries in attendance, and the summit highlighted the very important Africa4Girls2030 campaign.

Nimco Ali – OBE, a UK-based Somali activist, is our Guardian Angel of the day. She was one of the keynote speakers at the summit. Nimco is the co-founder of The Five Foundation, the Africa-led partnership to end FGM. “Five”, is referring to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal number 5: GENDER EQUALITY. More specifically, Target 5:3 has to be tackled (the elimination of forced marriages and FGM), and therefore SDG5 cannot fully be achieved without including the eradication of FGM being included in the equation:

Jaha Dukureh (left) with Nimco Ali (right)

“The Five Foundation is focused on 5:3 of the SDGs, and we believe to completely achieve SDG5, we have to end FGM. It’s the first act of gender inequality and without ending FGM we will not achieve an equal world,” says Nimco.

The organisation funds frontline “End FGM” partners around the world, including The Samburu Girls Foundation in Kenya and Safe Hands For Girls in The Gambia. Nimco deserves huge recognition for her work after receiving her OBE announcement on June 8, 2019. She is, however, yet to meet The Queen at her Investiture to formally accept it in person. Nimco agreed to a brief interview with Anita Kouassigan below:

Good morning Nimco. It was an honour to meet you a few weeks ago, and congratulations once again for receiving an OBE.  Do you feel your OBE will equip you with more power and influence to continue with your work to end FGM?
I think the OBE will silence some of the critics that said FGM was not an issue in the UK. I believe my OBE will also allow me to help change the conversation, so we can focus on the global picture. It’s a great line in the sand.

You recently hosted two events in Westminster, the first one being “The Economic Case for Ending FGM.” Please can you explain what that means?
People assume poverty creates FGM and fail to see that it’s actually FGM that leads to poverty. When you subject girls to FGM, they are unable to fully contribute to a country. They will need more medical and social interventions – this costs money. I want African leaders in particular to see that if they want prosperity for their country and people, they need to end FGM.

Would you say that girl-child marriage also increases the risk of FGM for girls, meaning if FGM were reduced, child marriage would also be reduced?
FGM and child marriage are often directly linked. In many countries, a girl is cut so she can be sold off to an older man. If we end FGM, then we can break the cycle of abuse at the beginning and make inroads into ending what’s referred to as “child marriage”, which is really actually the rape of young girls.

The second event in June was the screening of Jaha’s Promise. Do you believe her “promise” has been fulfilled, at least in part?
Her promise was to protect her baby sister and that was kept. Here’s some background. Up until her baby sister was saved from being cut, all the rest of the women in her family had undergone FGM, and her fight – or promise – was to put an end to FGM in her family after many generations of cutting. The fact that she succeeded was an amazing breakthrough, and consequently, she is now changing the world, and is everyday closer to making Gambia free of FGM.

You must have come up against a lot of adversity for dealing with such a sensitive matter, and to others, perhaps a private topic. How do you handle this? 
Humour is a great tool when communicating about something like FGM. It also allows you to be hopeful – which I am.

FGM is not just a third world problem is it? Apparently, it’s still being conducted for example in the UK and the US. Do you think it will be easier to manage the situation over in the UK or back in Africa? Or is the practice more covert in the UK?
FGM is a global issue that Africans and Africa are leading. The UK and US are funding NGOs that seek to “save” communities instead of “empowering” them, all the while ignoring the issue on their front door. This has been a massive challenge. We are changing this in the UK but it’s difficult in the US – there isn’t the same commitment from the Head of State or the media.

Last of all, what advice would you give women who’ve had their human rights breached (in all situations)?
You are a survivor, there are millions of us that stand with you. Take your time to heal, and you will, and never let anyone make you feel that you are not whole.

Another crucial speaker was Regional Goodwill Ambassador Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian anti-FGM activist based in the US. She is an FGM survivor and the Founder of Safe Hands For Girls, a non-profit organisation set up in 2013, which works to support survivors of FGM and fights to protect young girls and women who are at risk of being subjected to FGM. A screening of her documentary film Jaha’s Promise was recently held in The Houses of Parliament, on June 11, 2019 hosted by Nimco Ali and introduced by Boris Johnson, MP, another anti-FGM advocate.

UN Women Executive Director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, representing the United Nations was also in attendance, and as noted in a recent UN WOMEN press release, is calling for action to end FGM and child marriage. The summit opened on the Day of the African Child, with its main aim being to “translate the commitment of governments, religious leaders, traditional leaders, and other stakeholders into action on the ground that eliminates these harmful practices.” (Source: UN Women’s website, June 19, 2019).
Sponsors of the event include The Points Guy (TPG), a trusted travel and lifestyle media platform that focuses on maximising travel experiences, while minimising spending. TPG used miles and points to assist Nimco, and two Kenyan FGM activists, Jeremiah and Josephine to fly in for the summit. Nicky Kelvin (Director of Content) and Jean Arnas (Head of Video) from TPG UK also attended the summit to create content to spread the message further.

Conclusion
Although FGM has been reduced recently as shown in a study published by BMJ Global Health on East African girls aged 14 and under (from 71.4% in 1995, to 8% in 2016 – Source: The Guardian, UK), there are warnings that the world must not get complacent. A reduction in one region does not prevent an increase in another, and about 70 million girls are still at risk of FGM. In communities where it still exists, the practice remains an example of patriarchal control, and tradition and cultural identity still outweigh education about sexual health and wellbeing.  Therefore, women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health matters are still a challenge (for those who sadly weren’t saved from FGM) and the fight against FGM must continue. To learn more, please visit: www.thefivefoundation.org


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