According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated 200 million women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), with an additional 3 million girls still at risk of receiving the procedure every year. A common cultural practice across diverse regions of Africa, as well as Asia and the Middle East, FGM is categorised as the damaging or removal of girls' genital organs for non-medical reasons — a tradition believed to safeguard premarital virginity and promote modesty that can result in devastating complications. Though it's been labelled as a human rights violation by the WHO, FGM is much more insidiously widespread than most of us, particularly in the West, realise.
Nimco Ali, a 35-year-old activist and co-founder of the non-profit Daughters of Eve, is fighting to eradicate the practice, and to break FGM's cycles of silence, one girl at a time. A survivor who immigrated to Britain from Somalia as a small child, Ali was cut when she was just 7 and watched other girls going through it who were much younger.
While Ali understood she was part of a long line of women in her own family who had been subjected to FGM, she never knew how to talk about the traumatic experience, especially in the context of her relatively privileged, secular upbringing. "That's why I never spoke out for over 20 years, because I thought, 'I'm not a poor African girl, I don't want people to be thinking of me as this victim,'" she says. Fast forward to 2006, when Ali met with a group of Bristol students, the vast majority of whom had also undergone FGM. "In that moment, my silence was complicit, because everyone was thinking it didn't happen in the UK, it was all to do with culture, but all these are misconceptions."
Daughters of Eve is working to mobilise British authorities to recast FGM as part of a wider crisis of violence against women — not a private tradition. "The main thing was to get the public services, the government, those with duty of care, to understand that these are British girls, like anyone else, and that in letting them down, it's a complete and unacceptable failure," Ali says. And she's already seeing change in families with legacies of this extremely damaging practice — starting with her own niece. "Once you save one child, you save a whole generation," she says.
Press play above to learn more about how Ali is amplifying her own story to finally bring an end to FGM.
This video was filmed for The Female Lead by Marian Lacombe, with photography by Brigitte Lacombe. The Female Lead is a non-profit organisation dedicated to making women’s stories more visible and offering alternative role models to those ever-present in popular culture. Visit The Female Lead website to send a free copy of The Female Lead book and teaching resources to any US or UK school.