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Interview: Ann-Marie Wilson FGM campaigner

31 January 2014

'I couldn't find any churches willing to host a talk'

In 2005, I was volunteering with Medair, a Christian aid agency, and met a little girl who had had female genital mutilation (FGM) at five years old. At ten, she was raped by armed militia, who burned her village, killing all her family and community, and she was left orphaned and pregnant. Meeting her, aged 11, with her baby changed my life. This has become my life's work.

FGM has affected more than 125 million women globally, including 92 million women in Africa. It continues to affect three million women a year - that's one girl cut every ten seconds. They are our neighbours. We have a duty to help protect children from this abuse.

It's been going on for 2000 years, but, like foot-binding, which existed for a thousand years, it could be eradicated in three to five generations. In England and Wales, it is estimated that about 66,000 girls and women have undergone FGM, and 30,000 are at risk. Some of these will have FGM overseas, and some have it illegally in the UK. Even my GP has seen it.

It's such an entrenched practice: we talked to a guy a few years ago who was making a film in West Africa called The Cutting Tradition, and he's been sensitised: he knows the implications. But at the end, off-camera, he said: "I'd still like it for my daughter."

Perhaps he thinks he is failing in his duty, as an African father, to prove that his daughter is pure and chaste as a bride. So some would say I'm being naïvely optimistic.

There's a new energy to end FGM. It helped that we achieved a UN global ban in December 2012, and positive conclusions at the Commission of the Status of Women in February 2013, where I was privileged to speak at four events. Violence against women can end if men do not commit, condone, or remain silent about it.

I live in north London, and work from there most of the time, with meetings in central London a few days a week. We have a virtual organisation of 30. I'm also overseas four times a year - in the US, South Africa, East Africa, and Australia this year.

Our work focuses on research, networks, and advocacy. The research educates and informs people; we try to create networks among activists, government, media, health practitioners, educationalists, and faith organisations. Advocacy is about campaigns: social media, influence, and speaking in churches. We speak to the United Nations, the Home Office, the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the House of Lords.

FGM is pre-Islamic and pre-Christian, and affects 28 countries in Africa, some of the Middle East and Asia, and the diaspora countries where people settle. It's cultural, not religious, but some believe it's religious. It has psychological and health implications. It needs to be addressed by the Government and all of us as a justice issue.

I've lived by faith, supported by donations, since 2004. My support is managed by CMS, and I live on a small allowance. "28 Too Many" [anti-FGM charity. The name refers to the 28 African countries where FGM is practised] is resourced entirely by donations, and we need £60,000 a year to cover the work of 30 volunteers. We receive £120 in pledged monthly gifts - and the rest is by ad hoc donations - from £2 on Paypal to a few trusts and legacies from as far as away as Dubai, the Arab Emirates, and the US. I also did two sponsored runs this year and raised £2500. Others also raise funds for us, which is amazing - and nothing is toosmall.

The hardest thing was probably when a "pledged" donor pulled out. That has a huge impact on a small charity, and resulted in our having to reorder some priorities. Yet as one door closes another opens, and other offers of help meant we could keep on track.

I didn't choose this. It chose me, and I feel God called me to it. Somehow this protects me from people's criticism, or those who don't want to hear. If I was God, I wouldn't have chosen me, I'd have chosen a medic. . . But everything I've needed to learn I've been able to learn, and perhaps he just needed the right sort of character, which I was, or I've morphed into. Having met that little girl, I feel I have to work for her, and what I go through is nothing to that which she and others have had to go through.

I'm not used to failing at things - and I may do so. But I'd like to lead this discipline a little further ahead than when I inherited it.

In church circles, sometimes it's difficult. I went to Australia recently, and couldn't find any churches willing to host a talk. Six or seven secular groups invited me, but even a church leader who had missionary experience in Tanzania couldn't get over the gruesome, private nature of the issue. In Britain, it has been easier, and perhaps women who have suffered some related experience are ready to open their hearts to this message. There is more in the media now, and I think General Synod is thinking about this. The Church can't afford to be standing on the sidelines: this is a modern-day issue which we should be involved in.

FGM has horrific consequences for so many women. It can be overwhelming, but then we think of a particular story, like the two girls in Kenya who walked eight hours a day to go to and from school. They learnt of FGM and ran away to avoid it, and when they were reunited with their parents, they helped eradicate FGM from their village. That community of 200 now has lived FGM-free for six years: no girl younger than 18 has been cut. This makes it all worth while.

I try not to horrify people. I don't show films of what happens. You have to help people to go on that journey, whether they want to learn more, or advocate, or share, or give. I'm on the three-year Tear Fund Inspired Individuals scheme, which hooks you up with people who are involved with other difficult issues, and we support each other. When people meet me, they find it much easier than thinking about it. I don't labour the point. We have to know what to do, from a child-protection point of view as well, to treatpeople with dignity, and not be horrified.

One of the most exciting things has been the incredible response from New Wine Women in 2012, which gave tremendous encouragement that the vision of 28 Too Many was worth pursuing. They gave us an amazingly generous donation.

There was a survivor in Kenya, in a refugee camp. I'd helped to write her story of the day she was cut. Her essay then won her a scholarship to Canada, where she was resettled and became an anti-FGM campaigner.

If I wasn't doing this, I'd teach English to refugees, or work with the homeless, or in prisons. My heart's always been for people on the margins.

My extended family supports and encourages me in my work, and keeps growing. I have eight godchildren, my church and local community, friends, cousins, and an uncle, and the ten children I helped birth in Nigeria and Pakistan.

At around the age of five, I wanted to be a surgeon, and I joined the Red Cross when I was six. Later on, I wanted to be an occupational therapist, and then to help people in business. So, at 16, I left school, and at 17 went into human resources, where I stayed for over 20 years, before volunteering in aid work. Having done a business degree in my twenties, I became a coach/counsellor/psychologist in my thirties, and did cross-cultural studies in my forties to become a mission worker in FGM.

I don't have regrets. I believe that everything in life is for a reason, and we have to deal with a mixture of challenges as well as successes.

I love the beauty of the countryside, the calm of the sea, and the vibrancy of cites such as Sydney and New York.

I like The Kite Runner and Shame, books about issues, whether around a novel or a life story.

I love Isaiah 61.1-10 and Esther 4.14b, as they are all about justice and calling.

The ebb and flow of the sea reminds me I am a very small part of the universe that turned before I came along and will do so after I've gone.

Injustice and unfairness make me angry, and the thoughtless violence that people commit against each other, often with total impunity.

I'm happiest relaxing with jazz or classical music, looking at art or good theatre or ballet, with friends and laughter.

I pray every day for the girls and women affected by FGM, and for success in the campaign to end this terrible practice.

I'd choose Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis to be my companions in a locked church, because I'd like General Synod, the Anglican Communion, and the Holy See to pass policies to end FGM.

Ann-Marie Wilson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.




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