One summer’s day in the 1980’s was special for Hoda Ali. When she awoke, in the small hours of the morning, she fizzed with excitement. Her stomach swelled with food from her party the night before. Her hair was still coiffed and henna curled around her fingers. Today would be all about her, she thought. Today, she would become a woman.
Hoda was seven when she was cut. The woman who cut her had no medical training. She came to Hoda’s family home in the city of Hargeisa, Somaliland, with nothing but a razor, a syringe and a needle. It was “lucky” that her family could afford anaesthetic, but Hoda still felt every pull and tuck as the woman doctored her genitalia.
“Female Genital Mutliation” – the social tradition, in which a young girl’s labia and/or clitoris are removed or altered – has claimed space in the national press recently. But prior to the media furore, grassroots activists have been fighting the practice all along. Nowhere is this community-based response more evident than in Tower Hamlets.
“These parents who are cutting their children are not criminals. My mother cut me because she loved me,” Hoda, now a leading FGM campaigner and sexual health nurse, says from the borough. “She wanted me to be a woman: she wanted me to get married, and to fit into society, and be the beautiful girl she gave birth to. These parents do this for the love of their children – so what we need to do is educate them and let them know the harm that FGM does to women like me.”
Hoda was 11-years-old when the start of her menstruation warranted a series of operations. She was 31 when she was told she couldn’t have the baby she so desperately wants. On February 6, Hoda came to Tower Hamlets to mark a national “Zero Tolerance for FGM” day and work with Somali communities leading the struggle in the borough.
“There were many places I could have gone, where there might have been posh food or drink or freebies,” Hoda laughs, sat in a small community centre in Bethnal Green. “But I chose to come here, because I think these conversations are so valuable. Now that we, as survivors, are talking, and we’re not going to be shutdown, things will have to change.”
The scale at which the procedure is practised in Tower Hamlets remains unknown. FGM has been illegal in the UK since 1985, so it is hard to identify girls who might be at risk, and even harder to protect them.
For the past three years, Ayan Mahamoud, a leading member of the Ocean Somali group, and her team, have been a driving force in the response to FGM in Tower Hamlets. The organisation holds community events, and works with professionals, social workers and teachers to raise awareness and much-needed understanding.
“FGM has been publicised, especially in the last year or so, but there are still teachers and social workers who are totally unaware…when they’re faced with a mother who has been circumcised, or a child, they don’t know how to act or what to do,” she explains. “So we are keeping FGM on the agenda.”
It is this directed, grassroots approach which will make all the difference, according to Ayan.
“It’s important that people speak for themselves, so that practising communities don’t feel that it’s something pushed on them from the outside,” she says. “They need to hear from places that they know: from local social workers or their own doctors. Otherwise it’s just coming from too far away.”
But the duty cannot sit solely on the shoulders of activists.
“Of course, at the end of the day, responsibility belongs to the government and local councils to protect children”, Ayan says. “So much has been happening in the last year, and luckily Tower Hamlets has had a lot of involvement. But we can’t work in isolation – we have to all work together to have some impact.”
It seems Tower Hamlets Council is on board. It is currently launching a pilot scheme aimed at eradicating the practice. This will see the development of training and advocacy services, and work closely with frontline professionals, such as midwives and social workers.
“You need a holistic approach where everyone works together and learns from each other,” the council’s violence against women and girls strategy manager, Fiona Dwyer, explains. “I think that’s really key for us in Tower Hamlets.”
The message that councillors and activists alike drive home is that “education is key”. “Because remember”, Hoda adds, “my mother was a victim too, and my grandmother before her. But I have learnt the hard way, and I’m the last one to be cut in my family.”