* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Can Canada become new player in global movement to end female genital cutting?
Julia Lalla-Maharajh OBE, CEO and founder of Orchid Project, a charity working to end female genital cutting (FGC), recently visited the Canadian capital Ottawa with British-Somali activist Hibo Wardere to press for Canadian investment in ending FGC.
In the world of social change, there are always new opportunities. The taboo nature of FGC means that it’s not often on people’s radars – even those who have been working in development or overseas for years. So, if a new global player appears on the scene, it makes sense to follow through swiftly on every opportunity, as soon as it arises.
This was a case in point the day that Canada elected Justin Trudeau and his new party. Soon after, at the Commission on the Status of Women meeting in New York, Canadian Ministers Marie-Claude Bibeau and Patricia Hajdu were part of many discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights and women’s rights. Their triumphant message throughout the event was #CanadaisBack. And truly, they were.
To everyone’s delight, the Prime Minister also appeared at CSW and addressed a packed General Assembly Hall. Trudeau emphasised the importance of achieving gender equality in Canada. Orchid Project felt that Trudeau, as a stated feminist running a feminist government, was a world leader who could be convinced of the need to support an end to FGC.
Soon after, the opportunity arose to hear the PM speak at an event in Toronto and I was able to make the trip. I was able to tell Justin Trudeau of the hope and opportunity associated with an end to FGC. He was rather taken aback to be part of such a discussion but took it in his stride. Of course, the ubiquitous selfie followed. The trip also meant that I was able to reach out to various civil servants and others.
At the end of September, I was able to return to Canada, with Hibo Wardere, an incredible British Somali activist.
The reason for asking Hibo to accompany me was that I was shocked by the silence in Canada. When we look at the rise of awareness in both the UK and now the USA, it seemed that Canada would have also started acknowledging this agenda.
Hibo underwent FGC as a young girl in Somalia. As a teenager she sought asylum in the UK. Through fear of being ostracised from speaking out, she remained silent until twenty years later when as a teaching assistant she came face to face with a child who was at risk of undergoing the practice.
Realising the risks of FGC happening within a UK context pushed her into action, she felt it was time to share her own experience in order to help raise awareness. She began speaking about what had happened to her in schools across London, educating youth to be aware about FGC within their communities. She also wrote her incredible book: ‘Cut: One Woman's Fight against FGM in Britain Today’.
We knew that we needed to tell Canadians more about why FGC matters, but didn’t want to force any Canadian survivors to speak out, knowing that there could be a backlash from the community. Taking Hibo meant that she would be able to talk of her experience both as a survivor, activist and FGM Mediator.
If we look back at the UK movement, we know that a similar taboo was in place here, but that the cycle was interrupted by some individuals coming forward to start speaking of their experience, by the support of civil society, the championship of the Government and by balanced media coverage.
Currently, none of the above exist in Canada. Whilst there is a general sense that FGC must be an issue, there are few survivor voices and not enough from civil society to make a case for more to be done.
We were so delighted that Minister Bibeau agreed to speak at our Parliamentary event and when Canada’s Minister for International Development and La Francophonie took to the podium, she issued a clear commitment to FGC. She recognised the importance of a multifaceted approach to end the practice, urging Canadians from all sectors to prioritise an end to the practice both domestically and globally, ‘Canada needs to be present, and engaged…we cannot hide, avoid, or retreat’.
She also recognised that ‘FGM/C is driven by gender inequality and deeply rooted in harmful social norms’ and that ‘raising awareness of - and putting an end to FGM/C - is key for empowering women and girls and ensuring their human rights’.
At the grassroots we are witnessing an incredible movement of positive change where thousands of communities are choosing to end FGC. Orchid Project’s partner Tostan has supported over 7,700 communities across West Africa to collectively abandon the practice. We are at tipping point - as enough people see that enough people are changing, a Senegal free from FGC is within reach.
Ministers, civil servants and civil society present at the event proved their readiness to create a perfect storm of action. We need to build on this momentum and ensure that Canada’s commitment unfolds into more tangible ways of investing in ending female genital cutting worldwide.
Time and again in Canada, Hibo shared her story of being cut and the challenges that she faces daily as a result. Her story moved people to tears and most often, people came up to us and asked - what more can we do? We pointed to the change that we’ve seen in the UK and we urged Canada to learn from the wealth of experience in other countries. Canada’s national commitment to ending FGC globally can help achieve an environment where women and girls are free from FGC everywhere.
When I asked Hibo about her sense of our trip, her thoughts summed it up: ‘We’ve inspired Canada to join hands with us and to prioritise efforts to end the practice worldwide’.