"Talk with young people, not at them" - Ending FGM with Leyla Hussain

"Young People need to be involved on a policy level and a grassroots level"

Interview by June Eric Udorie and Isla Whateley from the #YouthForChange panel

We had the pleasure of talking to Leyla Hussain, the co-founder of the charity Daughters of Eve. Daughters of Eve works to protect young girls and women who are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM). She is also the Chief Executive of Hawa's Haven, a collective of Somali women campaigners and activists who raise awareness about gender-based violence in the UK and the horn of Africa. Here at #YouthForChange, we were really interested in hearing what she had to say about young people speaking out about FGM.

Leyla's motivations to speak out about FGM aren't unusual, and are probably shared by many of us. But she makes an excellent point about medical care for pregnant survivors.

“When I gave birth to my daughter, I didn’t want her going through what I went through. But also, during my pregnancy, nobody asked if I’d been cut. Not my GP, not my practice nurse, nobody. I realized that there was a big loophole in the system for FGM survivors,” she says. A loophole often forgotten or ignored, or one that people don't realize is even a problem.

It can often be difficult speaking out about FGM for the first time, especially living in a hostile or conservative community. Similar to many others before her, Leyla faced several challenges and backlash when she first spoke out.

“My parents were anti-FGM, however, from my community, I received a couple of death threats and I had to move home a couple of times. I knew it had a lot to do with me being a woman challenging a patriarchal system. But I always say that the fact that people were rude to me shows they were listening.” she says. What a way of putting a positive spin on something so negative! It's true though – if people actively hate what you're saying it means they're definitely listening.

Getting young people involved in the discussion about FGM is something we at #YouthForChange strive for and want to see more of. We asked Leyla why she thinks it is important that young people get involved.

“Young people are going to be the future parents and if they’re not educated, then they won’t be able to protect their children. I’ve always been really for young people to be involved. They need to be involved on a policy level and a grassroots level,” she says. “I always say that we shouldn’t talk at young people, but we should talk with young people”. That's exactly what we want to happen – young people need to participate in the discussion surrounding FGM. With half of the world under 25, we’re not just the future; we’re also the present.

There is so much that needs to be done to end FGM. Leyla believes that professionals should be given training in awareness and safeguarding.

“FGM needs to be recognized as a safeguarding issue and there needs to be compulsory training for all frontline professionals. FGM is child abuse, and should be included in the child protection training. Everyone should be aware of FGM, my GP should know about it, schools, hospitals, even the maternity ward,” she says.

Leyla is also passionate about providing services for FGM survivors – so they don't have to go through the same thing she experienced.

“We need accessible, specialist services for all FGM survivors. I am currently the only person who offers such services in the whole of Europe, and that shouldn’t be the case. I have women on a list who have to wait for months, and this is so unfair. Women shouldn’t have to wait for months to get help,” she says. There needs to be widespread services worldwide, to reach every girl and woman affected by the harmful practice.

There are some serious flaws in our education system, especially in PSHE (personal, social and health education). Not only should sex and relationships be covered in much more depth, but FGM and finance should also be a mandatory part of the curriculum, Leyla thinks.

“Look, we can never talk about FGM in schools, if we can’t even talk about sex in schools. I did hours of Geography at school, and it didn’t really help me. At school, you should learn about sex and relationships, finance and FGM. I still get a heart attack each time I get my bank statement because I don’t know how to manage my finances. Schools are the best places to educate about FGM,” she says.

FGM is a huge issue in itself, but it is only a branch in the massive, growing tree that is sexism and discrimination against women; especially women of colour.

“When we talk about FGM, we have to talk about race, gender and sex. There is still sexism and discrimination- that is a fact. The majority of girls that are cut are black girls. And, I mean, women are already at the bottom of the pile, but black girls and women are even further down,” Leyla says. The issue of gender inequality encompasses FGM, and it needs to be tackled as part of the fight against FGM.

There is so much more to do in the fight against FGM, but with brilliant campaigners like Leyla we are one step closer to beating it. The natural next step is for young people to get themselves involved; we need to be the ones fronting the campaigns and leading the cause. Leyla agrees, and makes a poignant point about standing up for our rights.

“Young people should front these campaigns against FGM. Let me tell you something. If we were cutting off men’s genitals, there wouldn’t’ be a war in Iraq. There would be a war here. We need to stand up and speak up for our rights, and now is the time.”

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