When my family and I sat down to breakfast yesterday, my daughter asked what my plans were and why I was up and working so early. My computer was switched on and I was preparing to follow the live stream of the UK’s first Girl Summit co-hosted by Prime Minister, David Cameron and children’s charity, UNICEF.
When we hear about the issues of female genital mutilation (FGM) and child early and forced marriage (CEFM) here in the UK, I think we often consider them someone else’s problem. If it doesn’t directly affect us as individuals, we think we don’t need to concern ourselves with it, right? Wrong. If you’re a parent, this most definitely concerns you.
According to a new study revealed on the day of Girl Summit from the City University, London and Equality Now, in the UK alone there are around 130,000 FGM survivors aged 15-49, 24,000 women aged 50 and over and 20,000 young girls aged under 15 years. That’s far too many women and girls affected by female genital mutilation living in the UK.
Globally, according to new UNICEF data, 130 million women and girls have experienced some form of FGM. As many as 30 million girls alive today could have their genitals mutilated in the next decade – simply because they are born female.
I know that’s a lot of figures to throw out there, so let’s focus on you for a few seconds.
Did you know that you blink once every two to ten seconds? Neither did I until actress and Plan UK Ambassador, Frieda Pinta informed me. That’s an awful lot of blinking in an hour. And a huge amount of blinking in a day. How many times did you blink whilst reading this paragraph? For every blink you just did, in Africa, some girl will have had her genitals cut.
There are no arguments for the practice of FGM. It is a violation of human rights, yet it continues to happen all over the world; we might not like to think so, but yes, that includes right here in the UK. Turning a blind eye is simply not acceptable any more.
So, at seven years old, I contemplated the answer I should appropriately give to my daughter’s question about my plans for the day, knowing that whatever I said to her would result in further inquisitive questions: “Today I’m going to be learning about how different countries in the world plan to try and stop girls only a little bit older than you from being forced to marry men.” Confused and with a tinge of anticipation, she replied: “Girls my age get married, Mummy?” I could hear in her tone that it all sounded quite exciting in her imaginary world of beautiful wedding dresses and ‘happy ever afters’.
“Yes,” I replied, thoughtfully. “In some countries, sadly, girls only a couple of years older than you are forced to marry men around the same age as Daddy. That’s a strange thought, isn’t it? No more going to school, no more playing and having fun with friends…just spending the rest of your life being married to someone as old as Daddy and because someone else said you had to,” I said. “Today, the Government, the people who run our country, are holding an event that is hoping to stop this from happening, so that girls like you all over the world can continue to be children and spend their childhood’s learning and having fun, just as they should.”
I didn’t even mention the hopes and plans to end FGM because I was afraid of the questions it would lead to and how on earth I would possibly answer those. Talking about the mutilation of female genitals just seemed too difficult a conversation to enter into at 7.30am on a school day with a seven year old girl. And, if I’m honest, I was concerned about how this conversation would reverberate around the school playground throughout the day, and the inevitable repercussions it may lead to from disapproving parents once her friends were to go home and raise it over their dining table.
But watching Girl Summit, the words I had said to my daughter over breakfast were suddenly put into images, into actual emotions and placed on to the real life vulnerable faces of young girls and teenagers. And I realised I was wrong.
Incomprehensibly, girls as young as eight are sold into marriage to men literally as old as their fathers. Just seven years ago, my daughter came into my world, changing it forever, filling my heart with joy. Every day she makes me laugh, smile, ache with pride. Imagine your daughter, your niece, your granddaughter for a moment. Their happy, smiling faces playing carelessly with their friends, giggling over the silliest things, heading off to school with that amazing eagerness to learn.
Now imagine all the girls in the world that are being denied that opportunity. 700 million women alive today were married as children – that’s four times the female population of the USA. Imagine all those childhoods destroyed – girls forced to marry, their bodies placed at risk, of possible death during childbirth, as they try to cope with the pregnancy and birth of a baby when they’re still only children themselves.
Imagine being that child, your father saying to you: “We can’t afford to look after you, you must do the right thing and marry this man.” Imagine your new ‘husband’ saying: “You were promised to me. You have no choice.”
It’s something I, as a mother, cannot allow myself to accept as justifiable or as someone else’s problem.
I would do anything for my children. I’d give my life for my children in a flash. I will do whatever it takes to keep them safe, to keep them happy. But for some women, their culture dictates there is no choice but to inflict FGM upon their children, or to force them into early marriage. For many women, it’s all they have known themselves. In many cases, women are not the protective mothers we imagine but the people who perpetrate these harmful practices.
How is it possible to change such deep-rooted, entrenched attitudes and to stop such historic cultural practices. How can we save girls from the horrific trauma and complications of female genital mutilation and the exploitation of child early and forced marriage?
Girl Summit was very clear that it is possible – and within a generation – but it won’t be easy. It needs you.
Now, don’t switch off at this point just because I have placed some onus on you. If we all work together, we can do this. We can change things for the better for the millions of girls world wide, vulnerable to the pain and suffering caused by these harmful practices.
The amazing Malala Yousafzai spoke at Girl Summit. At 17 years old, she has such a wise and inspirational head on her shoulders that I never fail to be in awe of her. She spoke about education and how in 2012 when she was shot by the Taliban for receiving an education, 400 schools were destroyed to deny women the chance to improve their lives.
To end FGM and CEFM, the message is education is key.
If girls are educated they start to realise there are other options available to them. They become a different prospect to their family. Instead of costing the family money though a dowry – the payment in cash or some kind of gift given to a bridegroom’s family along with the bride – they begin to bring the family money through work. Let’s not forget that the the younger the child, the smaller the dowry. Living in poverty, a small dowry can be a huge factor when it comes to forcing a girl into a marriage where the husband will take over financial responsibility for her. Parents must therefore be educated that saving towards their daughter’s education, not towards their dowry, is the way to benefit their family.
As Malala said so eloquently at Girl Summit: ‘Girls should be respected . A boy has a life to live the way he wants to live it.’ A girl deserves this right too. ‘Education gives a girl independence. She realises she can contribute to society.’ She deserves equality.
Giving a girl an education gives her the power to say ‘no’. Perhaps that’s the fear in our patriarchal world. Learning ‘no’ means change. But our world needs change. And Girl Summit showed that together, we have the power to make change.
Malala talked about how, for her 17th birthday, on 12 July, she met with Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian President, regarding the 217 female students abducted from school by militant Islamist group, Boko Haram. She met with the fifty or so who had managed to escape Boko Haram by jumping from the truck they were abducted in. Malala found that not one of these girls was receiving any form of help – no education, no family support, no psychological support and no medical attention for the injuries they received whilst fleeing from their abductors. Goodluck Jonathan was doing nothing for these girls – not even ensuring the injuries they received whilst escaping were treated. Appalled, 17 year old Malala asked the President to do something.
Whilst waiting for him to take action, to do something to help these girls, she has decided she will invest in these girls. She has raised USD200,000 to open educational projects for these girls, to provide safety and to offer them hope.
On the day of Girl Summit, Nigeria’s President met with the parents of the abducted girls for the first time after being accused of handling the 100-day crisis badly. He has apparently told those parents that the Nigerian government is doing everything possible to secure their release.
Perhaps 17 year old Malala helped to educate the President. By securing their release the Nigerian President will be educating men the world over that women and girls cannot be treated this way; that women and girls deserve respect and equality. That women and girls have the right to an education, to live their life the way they choose. To say ‘no’.
The UK government has pledged to educate public sector staff dealing with women and girls affected by the issues for female genital mutilation and child early and forced marriage. It will now be a mandatory duty for public sector staff, for teachers, for healthcare staff, to report concerns regarding FGM and CEFM. And parents can now be prosecuted and held liable. Positive changes, but these changes will only be relevant if they are implemented. After all, FGM has been illegal in this country since 1985 and to date we have seen only one prosecution. So the proposed UK changes are good, very positive in fact, provided we ensure they are being actioned. Justine Greening, State Secretary for International Development, said she would like to see a Girl Summit every year. What better way, in my opinion, to hold accountable the 21 governments who have each signed the charter pledging to end FGM and CEFM in a generation. Rhetoric is one thing. It’s action that brings change.
FGM and CEFM are preventable evils that are everyone’s business. They’re acts of child abuse that we can all help to stop. It’s so incredibly sad that it has reached this level, but it’s time for a cultural change – that’s why, as a parent, a mother, a father, a grandmother, a grandfather, your voice is needed. It has the power to bring change. Men and women need to work together to make the world a better place for our girls.
So on reflection, this morning when my daughter asked me about my plans for today, I should have expanded and been braver. I should have had a conversation with my daughter about FGM. Yes, it would have been difficult, but it might just have meant she could have offered support to a pupil at her school who may well be at risk of FGM or CEFM. Over the summer holidays, I pledge to have that conversation.
For many UK girls the school summer holidays are just beginning. For some it will be the start of the cutting season. A time when young girls are taken abroad to have their genitals mutilated, the summer holidays providing some time to heal without any questions from prying eyes. For others the school summer holidays will be a time when girls are taken abroad and forced to marry a man at least twice their age and someone they’ve never met before. Imagine the fear those girls are feeling now.
We all owe it to work together, to educate ourselves and our children, to speak out and put an end to FGM and CEFM.
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