Wednesday 01 Mar 2017

Changing the World for Women and Girls

When Leyla Hussein got pregnant with her daughter, she didn’t realise anything was wrong with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). But for the health professional who was treating her following the birth of her child, Leyla’s scar was an alarm bell that the new-born baby girl was in danger of suffering the same fate as her mother. 

Finding out that FGM is illegal in the UK, despite having been groomed her whole life to think that it was the norm, Leyla started asking questions: “How come I didn’t have this information in my school? Or from my family doctor? Or from my midwife?”. These questions went unanswered and she still asks them today. 

“I didn’t set out to be a campaigner” explained Leyla to her audience of La Châtaigneraie Year 13 students. Having grown up in the West, people assume that Leyla hasn’t undergone the practice, thinking it only happens to little girls in African rural villages. But it was done to her at the vulnerable age of seven. In the rapt atmosphere of the Founex campus’ Primary Aula, Leyla asks: “How do you break this cycle of violence?”

Guilty of being born a woman

In a world where over one billion women and girls are still at risk of undergoing harmful practices, Leyla calls for the end of oppression of women, in all forms it takes. Her vision? To support and empower women to end FGM and create an environment where they can stand up for themselves. 

As things stand, “women are guilty of being born with a vagina” affirms Leyla, who explained that FGM stems from the desire to control women and girls’ sexuality. “This is a global issue” she goes on, “and FGM is just one of its symptoms”. 

With the alarming rate of five girls undergoing FGM every minute, this problem is urgent. According to the World Health Organisation, there are over 200 million girls living with the consequences of this practice, 500’000 of them in Europe. With devastating long-term physical and psychological effects, victims don’t only suffer from the immediate consequences of the procedure itself. From post-traumatic stress to flashbacks, from sexual dysfunction to severe depression as well as gynaecological and urinary complications, FGM has lifelong repercussions.

FGM as child abuse

FGM has been declared illegal in most countries, including in many where it is commonly practised. In the UK, a law was passed in 1985 against FGM. But for Leyla there is “no reason to have a law specifically for FGM. We wouldn’t have one that forbids cutting a child’s leg off. We need to treat FGM like any other form of child abuse”. Yet many barriers still exist that prevent the total eradication of this dangerous practice, including lack of funding, safe havens for women and girls, trained staff and decisive commitment, as well as the omission of FGM from mandatory child protection training. 

Despite so many obstacles, Leyla remains positive, saying that “things are being done to protect girls, and that daughters who aren’t cut must be recognised as a sign of hope”. She concludes that while “it’s a parent’s responsibility to protect their child from harm,” everyone can get involved by spreading the word and creating awareness at an individual, family and school level. For Ecolint students, Leyla shed light on a subject they can lend their voice to now and in the future. For Leyla, she has found in Ecolint students, who throughout their schooling have been encouraged to participate in projects that develop their sense of social responsibility, a set of allies and spokespeople who will forever be touched by her story.

Watch Channel 4’s documentary The Cruel Cut, featuring Leyla Hussein. 

Find out more about FGM and Leyla Hussein’s work

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