In 2008 I was volunteering in Ethiopia. I had stepped out of my 20-year corporate life and wanted a different rhythm. In Addis Ababa and the green hills behind it, I felt at home. The air was fresh, people were welcoming and the work was rewarding. I was at home in my tiny kitchen in Addis, reading the Lonely Planet Ethiopia travel guide, when I discovered this:
“….female genital mutilation brings enormous physical pain and suffering. As one doctor put it, ‘These women are holding back a scream so strong, it would shake the earth.’”
I learned that 75% of women in Ethiopia have been cut. Most are under five when it happens. Each year three million girls are at risk of being cut in Africa alone. I could not begin to grasp the scale of the issue – nor the taboo that surrounded it.
I started talking with local activists, all of whom said to me: “Please go, tell the world that this happens. This violates human rights and we need people to know about it.” But I made up my mind to dedicate myself to ending female genital cutting (FGC) after meeting two young girls, Megdes and Tinebab, in Lalibela, a city in the north of the country. I learned that they were to undergo FGC, and I wanted to beg their parents not to have them cut. But I had no right to do that. In that moment, I decided that I would do whatever I could to help end FGC.
Campaigning in the UK
Since that time in the hills of Lalibela, so much has changed. I returned to the UK keen to begin campaigning against FGC. I wanted to understand more about the practice and why it persisted in communities, and also what initiatives were successful in creating change. In the UK, FGC was often portrayed as a barbaric, horrific practice that amounted to torture. This was incompatible with what I knew, that Ethiopian families love their daughters and would not intentionally harm them.
In 2010, I entered a video competition called the Davos Debates with a video about FGC. Against all odds I won the competition and spent an incredible few days at Davos, where I learned about the work of Tostan. Later I met Tostan’s founder, Molly Melching, who had recently won a Skoll Award. I took my business model to her and she gently pulled it apart. “Where do you think change really happens, Julia?” she asked.
Until that point, I had targeted change at global, international, political levels. In that moment, I knew the answer was that change happens at the level of communities, in supporting them to make choices. That moment changed everything and in 2011, I travelled with Molly to Senegal and The Gambia and witnessed the change happening within communities there. I saw what it means for a community to choose to shift a social norm together, publicly declaring their abandonment of FGC in joyful celebration.
Back in London, I set up Orchid Project as a charity dedicated to ending FGC. Our first advocacy target was the UK Department for International Development (DFID). In a stroke of luck, we were given free office space, a tiny, grimy old shop with a huge window. We put a large campaign poster against FGC in the window and soon realized that our office was on a shortcut between the DFID offices and the train station. People congratulated us on our guerrilla marketing, not realizing how much luck was involved.
At the same time that we began talking to DFID, we worked with others in the NGO sector, briefed politicians and talked with journalists. We reached out to international organizations, to the private sector, to opinion leaders and gatekeepers, and got remarkable traction along the way. We also started supporting projects that were working towards a sustainable end to FGC.
I will never forget the day in 2013 when we were told that the UK government was considering investing in ending FGC. The proposed work became ever more ambitious, the amount kept rising and the UK ended up putting £35 million ($58.5 million) towards work in 17 countries.
Cameron gets on board
Last month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron held his “Girl Summit” here in London. It brought together leaders from 50 countries, representative from governments and civil society, and those affected by FGC. Together we pledged that FGC could end in a generation, but only with investment now. Orchid Project hosted a remarkable reception at the historic Lancaster House in London, with over 500 attendees. I talked about the change I had seen, and used Aimee Molloy’s book about Molly Melching, However Long the Night, as an example. Guests were delighted to each be given a copy as they left the event, so they can discover for themselves how others are making a choice.
I first met David Cameron in Davos in 2010. He seemed bemused when I asked him a question about FGC, but took it in his stride. Last month he stood up on stage and committed to an audience of over 600 people that he would be part of ending the practice, not just in the UK but around the world.
Each time I attend the Skoll World Forum, I remember Jeff Skoll’s words – “you’ve found your tribe now.” I am grateful for the tribe of people who have helped to grow a global movement to end FGC. Our choice is to support the change that’s happening right now.
But I never forget the two little girls in Lalibela who didn’t have that choice. My hope is that their daughters will be part of a generation who will never be cut.