In conversation with... Hoda Ali
'I want that little girl who was sitting in that room in her house thinking she's alone in this world when it comes to FGM, I want her to know that she's not alone, I want her to know that women like me are out there fighting for her.'
Hoda Ali is that woman fighting for an end to FGM. A prominent campaigner and survivor of FGM, Hoda debunks some of the myths that surround the issue and describes how education is the key to ending FGM for good.
You are a survivor of Type 3 FGM, what lasting impact did it have on you?
At age 7 I was cut in Somalia. By age 11 I experienced my first of many acute hospitalisations due to complications from FGM.
Medical complications from FGM continued to impact on my life: infections, adhesions, subfertility, IVF, miscarriage and finally the medical advice that risks to internal organs was too great, age 31 I was told IVF could no longer be pursued and I will never be able to have my own child. Age 37 I was told I’m going through premature menopause.
Have you ever spoken to your mother about FGM and the reasons behind taking you & your sister to be cut? How does she feel about it now?
My mum was a survivor, my grandmother was a survivor, and all the women before me in my family were survivors. I have never doubted my mum’s love for me, she wanted the best for her daughter, society expected her to cut us, and the pressure from the community was too overwhelming so mothers have no choice but to cut their daughters.
Education is the key to end FGM, my mother witnessed my medical problems and from that moment she was against FGM which is why we are the last to be cut in our family.
Over the last three years, we’ve seen a big awareness drive in the UK & globally around eradicating FGM. Just this last month, Liberia has imposed a one-year ban on FGM – being so close to the cause, do you feel the last few years have brought big change?
Yes, and one of the reasons are because survivors have started to speak out and we set up our own campaign here in the UK and around the world. We talk and show people it has nothing to do with our religion or culture, we speak about our experiences, we realised no one can speak for us and what we are going through other than us.
FGM is child abuse and we need to end it. Every time I had a medical appointment I always found myself educating the health professional who was looking after me, I used to feel sad when I think about some of the women and girls who might not speak English, living with lifelong physical problems and psychological trauma how are they going to explain? We have had the FGM act since 1985 but no one used it, so we started to demand a change.
The work on ending FGM also involves educating the communities. We can eradicate FGM if we all work together.
What are some of the myths people still believe about FGM?
First, we have to understand FGM is to control a woman's sexuality and keep her virginity till marriage, period! But these are some of the myths; cultural identity, hygiene, mistaken belief that it is a religious obligation. As a result of social pressures girls may want to undergo FGM despite the lack of reference to it in religious scriptures.
What do you think the biggest challenge is to ending FGM?
We have to call FGM what it actually is, child abuse, to END FGM we have to have an honest conversation. We need to educate women about their human rights, about their bodies, woman have the right to say NO!
We need to call FGM what it is – the worst form of violence against girls and women – rather than let it hide under a cultural poster. It is child abuse, and we need it named as such because language is the most powerful and influential way to fight against.
Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing in schools to educate about FGM?
I believe early education is very important therefore educating pupils starting from primary schools is vital. FGM is normally carried out on young girls from infancy to 15 years of age.
Perivale Primary School in Ealing is one of the first schools in the country to set up an Outreach Programme. In partnership with the Ealing Healthy Schools Team and funding from The John Lyon Charity we will be working with 15 primary schools in the borough; training and equipping them to educate their school community about FGM and then go on to support other neighbouring schools to do the same. Our aim is to ensure; that the whole community of Ealing understands FGM, accepts it as abuse, know the legal implications and where to go for help and support.
We will do this through listening to the local community and parents to help understand the issues and barriers that exist locally to tackle FGM, raising awareness amongst staff and pupils about FGM and its effects, constructing a suite of lessons plans and resources to use in school to help pupils learn how to stay safe.
Do you think older generations are seeing FGM for what it is, or is it still very much considered the right thing to do?
It is mixed, a lot of the older generation are really seeing FGM for what it is because FGM was not something which was talked about before. It was always a secret i.e. we never shared the medical problems, we never shared the psychological problems, we never shared all the pain that we go through as survivors.
No one talked about it, so basically no one knew the effect that FGM had on people, they still thought it was something that was good.
My family in London wouldn’t do it, me and my sister are the last ones to be cut. My niece will never ever know what FGM is but if we didn’t speak out they would still be victims themselves.
Education is the key I really believe that religiously for me, things are changing but there are still older people who are living in rural areas who we can’t get through to.
What is needed to help bring an end to FGM?
How are we going to end FGM in our generation? Get men to work with us because at the end of the day, FGM is to control a woman’s sexuality so if the men come on board with us, if men said I don’t want my woman to be cut, trust me, all these older generations who are for FGM will stop because they are doing it to please the future men, future husbands for any of us, any of these girls. So basically, the man is the answer to ending FGM because it happens for them. So, if they say I don’t want my woman to be cut, it will stop.
We have to speak up for those 200 million women and girls worldwide who are survivors of FGM. There are some of them who have no voice, so this is where I and the other campaigners become the voice for them.
I want that little girl who was sitting in that room in her house thinking she’s alone in this world when it comes to FGM. I want her to know that she’s not alone, I want her to know that women like me are out there fighting for her.
Hoda Ali, Mabel Evans and Leyla Hussein set up The Vavengers, a group campaigning to End FGM and they raise money for FGM initiatives. We asked Mabel Evans of The Vavenger's a couple of questions on the work they do to raise awareness of FGM and the progress that is being made to end it.
Can you tell us a bit about the work The Vavengers is doing to fill the funding cut gaps to FGM support services?
The Vavengers put on live music and poetry events, in a very laid-back environment in the future we hope to put on exhibitions and plays too. The idea is to make FGM mainstream and discussed whilst people can also come and listen to really amazing artists. All the money raised at the events goes directly to the charity we are fundraising for, not a cent goes anywhere else but to the cause.
I think it’s important to get young people today discussing FGM and women’s rights, I think in the west a lot of people disassociate to what is happening to our sisters across the globe. FGM isn't something that is irrelevant to us, it is a human rights issue that needs to be brought into our understanding of the reality for many women and girls. The Vavenger’s main goal is to raise money for the clinics and organisations that are helping these survivors; the clinics that are not getting enough funding to offer help to those who desperately need it.
Do you feel from your experience of campaigning to end FGM that we are well on our way to achieving the target that the UN Sustainable Development Agenda set to put an end to FGM by 2030?
To put an end to FGM by 2030? FGM isn't something that you can just eradicate like a virus, unfortunately its ingrained into a lot of peoples understanding regarding the roles of women. It’s a generational thing, The Vavengers often use the tagline ‘Last generation’ this is because if you are stopping one mother cutting her daughter you are saving thousands of girls that may have been cut in that family line.
To say it will end by 2030 is a lovely thought but most importantly we need to be the generation now that says enough is enough meaning that in 40 years when the girls who are children now become mothers they do not cut their daughters genitalia. Then I believe FGM will finally be a horror story of the past. To answer your question, yes, I do believe we are on the way to eradicating the practice, but by 2030?
A lot more commitment and awareness need to be bought in by the government in order to make that a reality, but I do think it’s best to stay hopeful. Ultimately as with most campaigns for the rights of women and girls I don't think FGM is being prioritised enough in mainstream politics and media.
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