In Washington Thursday, a group of experts from across the government will hold its first meeting to address the practice known as female genital mutilation. This is one issue where the U.K. is far ahead of the United States.
In London, female genital mutilation has become a central focus for police, teachers, doctors, and even the British prime minister. Other British advocacy groups look with envy on the success of this cause. And the dramatic change in the U.K.’s approach provides a case study in in how a social problem can go from obscurity to the spotlight seemingly overnight.
Nimco Ali is a stylish 30-year-old, born and raised in the U.K. by parents who immigrated from Somalia. Ali spent years as an activist fighting to stop FGM before she finally decided to reveal that she herself is a survivor.
Even then, she wasn’t totally ready to step out of the shadows. She had seen what happened to other women who spoke out. “They were just completely ostracized,” she says.
So when Ali did an interview with London’s Evening Standard newspaper two years ago, she told the whole story, describing how her parents took her to Djibouti in East Africa for the most extreme form of the procedure. But in a half-hearted effort to preserve some anonymity, Nimco Ali changed the C in her name to a K. And for the photo shoot, she wore a hat.
“That article came [out] on a Tuesday,” she remembers, “And I’m thinking — Oh, that’s fine, you know, it’s only in the Evening Standard. It’ll going to go into [trash] bins.”
Besides, she concealed her face by wearing a hat for the photographer. “But he zoomed into my face,” she says, “so you can kind of see — it’s like the stupidest picture ever. We always say the campaign around FGM started with a hat.”
The newspaper did not just go into trash bins. That night, Ali’s phone lit up with text messages from angry relatives. One said, “I knew you were crazy, but I didn’t know you were this crazy. You’ve just embarrassed yourself.”
Ali was at a tapas restaurant, but she paused to type a reply. “And I said, ‘Why don’t you cut off your penis and then text me back?’ Because it was very much about — that’s what I was talking about.”
Female genital mutilation is common in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Specific practices vary, but it can involve the entire removal of a woman’s external sexual organs. Immigrants may bring the practice with them to Western countries.
Until recently, the U.K. tended to treat FGM as a practice from a foreign culture that did not demand attention. Then it became clear that a lot of young British girls from immigrant backgrounds were being taken to Africa over school vacations to be cut.
Nimco Ali’s newspaper interview did more than attract the wrath of her cousins. It also attracted the attention of other parts of British society.
“It just snowballed,” says Anna Davis, education correspondent at the Evening Standard. Sitting in the bustling lobby of her newspaper’s headquarters in London, Davis explains that “without those women bravely talking about what they’ve been through, the story may have died out.”
Davis has worked at the Evening Standard for 8 years. When she started, there was hardly any mention of FGM at all, in her paper or others. “Now a week doesn’t go by without there being a story on it, so it’s been a dramatic change,” she says.
The change goes far beyond media attention. It extends to law enforcement, as well. Police in Britain have set up tip lines and posters encouraging people to report suspected cases. And this year brought the first ever prosecution for FGM. Detective Gerry Campbell explains that the law prohibiting the practice has been sitting on the books unused since 1985, but now, “Two people, a doctor and an FGM survivor’s husband, will be going on trial in January next year.”
This awakening also extends to the medical profession, where British doctors started tracking FGM cases last month for the first time. Janet Fyle is with the Royal College of Midwives in London. “I thought, I have been there when people didn’t talk about men who beat their spouses, and we’ve changed that,” Fyle says. “So this was the second thing that we’re going to change.”
Immigration officials in the U.K. now give passport cards to families traveling to certain countries. Those cards say it’s illegal to cut British citizens even abroad. The Department of Education is training teachers on how to recognize kids who may be at risk. In short, society here has completely transformed its approach across the board.
“There’s a conception that this happened overnight, and really it’s been going on for 20 to 30 years,” says Shelby Quast. She’s policy director for Equality Now, one of the groups that has done the most to change the British approach to FGM. Quast says this issue burst into public consciousness only after decades of people quietly laying the groundwork.
And, Quast says, this is one area where the West followed Africa’s lead. “We didn’t make up this way of doing things, but Burkina Faso led that in Africa, saying, ‘We need to have education, we need to have law, we need to have health care, we need to have everybody together to come to a solution to actually change this.’ ”
In 2011, the African Union asked the U.N. to pass a global resolution calling for an end to FGM.
That had a huge impact, says Quast. “We often heard an argument that this is something that the West cares about, it’s a cultural practice in Africa. But in reality it was these African governments, civil society, individuals calling for an end to FGM.”
The cultural change in Britain has been so dramatic, it recently reached the highest levels of government. In July, the U.K. hosted an international girls’ summit where Prime Minister David Cameron committed to ending FGM, saying, “These practices are just simply a violation of girls’ rights.”
Survivor Nimco Ali remembers listening to that speech in a state of near shock. “The prime minister is talking about keeping vaginas perfect,” she says. “And I thought, this is what we need to do — empowering young women.”
Ali says in that moment, the verbal abuse she took from her relatives for speaking out was worth it.
The next big challenge for these activists is getting the United States to catch up to Britain. Equality Now is working with an FGM survivor in the United States named Jaha Dukureh. She is sort of an American counterpart to Nimco Ali in London.
Ali recently sent Dukureh a gift of encouragement. It was a tray of cupcakes, decorated with the British flag and vaginas made out of frosting.