A village in Senegal taught me how we can end female genital cutting globally

by Hoda Ali | Campaigner
Thursday, 28 March 2019 13:49 GMT

Solar engineer Dousso Konaté. Photo courtesy Orchid Project.

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Not only have the girls from Keur Simbara not gone through what I went through as a child, but they won’t even know what cutting is

Hoda Ali is a campaigner, nurse, community outreach project manager and a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from Somalia.

I’ve been campaigning for an end to female genital cutting, something I experienced at the age of 7 in my home country of Somalia, for the last 15 years. With millions of women and girls affected around the world by cutting, the removal of a girls’ external genitals for non-medical reasons, this is an issue that’s close to my heart.

As a survivor, I know the harmful consequences of cutting well, and I’ve used my personal experience of years of complications and surgeries as my motivation to bring about change. I’m a nurse, an activist, and I work as a community outreach project manager, talking about cutting in schools in London, Britain, which has been my home since 1997.

After many years dedicated to protecting girls from being cut, I was recently sponsored by Orchid Project to go to Senegal, where a grassroots movement to end cutting has spread to nearly 9,000 villages across West Africa. I went to learn from the inspiring Senegalese women and men who sparked this movement, in partnership with a local organisation, Tostan. What I saw there has been life changing.

In this beautiful country, where peanut sellers line the streets and you can drink sweet juice made from the country’s national symbol, the striking baobab tree, I learned how human rights and a development programme that is truly led by the community has resulted in real, lasting change.

As part of a 10-day training, I learned about community wellbeing, human rights, supporting communities to envision their future and, most incredibly, I learned how villages in West Africa have abandoned cutting.

I visited Keur Simbara village, where in 1995 the community came together to publicly declare that they will no longer cut their daughters. Not only have the girls here not gone through what I went through as a child, but they won’t even know what cutting is. As a survivor, a 40 year old woman, I never in my life thought I would see that.

This village had achieved its ambitions of having a healthy, happy community, which they say was possible after learning about the right to health, to bodily integrity, to be free from discrimination. These rights are integral, now, to their values as a community.

Hoda embraces a woman at a community gathering in Keur Simbara, Senegal. Credit Jessia Kroenert, Tostan Senegal

They're also committed to sharing how they decided to abandon the practice. Volunteers from the village, called Social Mobilisers, go to neighbouring villages to visit friends and family, to talk about why they abandoned. That's how passionate they are about spreading this movement, often going miles by foot or by horse and cart. I met one such man during my visit who I’ll never forget.

His name was Sankharé . He told me how when he was a young man, his sister was cut and he saw her losing so much blood. After that day, she spent 80 percent of her life in hospital. This story gave me goosebumps because I felt he was talking about me. Luckily his sister survived, and he has since dedicated himself to supporting an end to the practice.

Sankharé’s story emphasised the importance of men and boys being part of this movement. If every brother did what he does, I think we’d be in a very different situation today.

I also met the incredible Doussou Konaté, a woman who travelled from Keur Simbara to India to become a solar engineer. Now she keeps the lights on and is a role model to girls in her village. If I can be even a quarter of the woman she is, I will die happy.

These communities have made a lasting change for themselves. The people are happy and empowered. The girls are not cut or going through child marriage. They're also leaders; speaking up and being listened to.

If it can happen in Keur Simbara, there's no reason that we can't end cutting in every community. This approach is something that could work to end the practice in Somalia too, where 98 percent of women and girls still undergo it. Those women are my sisters, and I feel more motivated than ever to do what I can to end cutting.

We need support like this globally, from the UK to Somalia, to countries like Malaysia, and India where cutting also takes place. It's not a “one size fits all”. What's important is listening to communities, giving the space to talk about issues that matter, and sharing about human rights.

My time in Senegal gave me even more conviction that it’s possible to end this harmful practice globally by 2030. Personally, I won’t stop until I see the day this becomes a reality.