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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Ann-Marie Wilson was talking to Terence Handley