Covid-19 Is Unravelling A Decade Of Progress Against FGM

'I need Grazia readers to write to their MPs, I know they can make things happen,' activist Nimco Ali tells Polly Vernon.

Women in Kenya

by Polly Vernon |
Updated on

Nimco Ali, the activist, author and strategist who has dedicated the last decade of her life to ending the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and whose organisation The Five Foundation has made massive strides in that time – securing an international commitment to end the practice by 2030, getting it outlawed in Sudan, convincing the UK Government to amend the 1989 Children Act to include FGM, for starters – is terrified all her extraordinary work is being undone by the coronavirus crisis.

‘It’s horrendous,’ she tells me. ‘Covid has sidelined everything. But
I tell you what’s worse than Covid: two million extra girls in Africa, now at risk of being cut. It’s heartbreaking.’

Nimco’s FGM activism is the powerful and constructive kind. ‘It is about creating an alternative for women. Not with aid, but by trusting African women with your money,’ she says. ‘Give them the opportunities to start their own businesses. African women are experts in their community. If you fund them, you empower them to make the changes they need, for themselves and their communities.’

Those newly empowered women, she says, will no longer choose FGM for their daughters. Nimco believes that, had her own mother felt Nimco had control over her financial future, she would not have subjected her daughter to FGM. Nimco was ‘cut’ when she was seven, in Djibouti, Somaliland; her mum was present. ‘She thought the only way for me to survive was to get married, and the only way for me to get married, was to be cut.’

In association with The Global Fund for Women, Nimco’s The Five Foundation has worked hard to give African women the financial agency that would convince them against choosing FGM for their daughters. ‘You wouldn’t expect the people who came out to support us. Arab banks, who worked with women to become chicken farmers, who now supply supermarkets across South Africa,’ explains Nimco.

By September, a million more girls will undergo FGM. Some will be pregnant. Some dead

But Covid-19 has proved damaging to her work. As the conversation in international communities became pandemic-focused, Kenya – a country that had taken enormous steps forwards in FGM – rapidly reversed on those gains. ‘In West Pokot, in the last five weeks, close to 600 girls have undergone FGM,’ says Nimco. Elsewhere in Kenya: ‘4,000 adolescent girls were impregnated in the first two months of the crisis. I say “impregnated”, because they had no choice. This was rape. Child marriage. 4,000 children will be born to those children. What are the results of that? Wars. A continent so overpopulated and unstable, people will start blowing themselves up.’

If left unchecked, things will, she says, only get worse. ‘I had an email from someone high up yesterday, saying, “Let’s revisit this in September.” By then, a million more girls will undergo FGM. Some will be pregnant. Some dead. I cannot wait until September.’

What can we do to help, I ask. ‘I need people to help me put pressure on the Government. I need people to write to their MPs and say: “I believe we can end FGM if we fund African women. African women have the solutions to their own problem.” Philanthropists say they want to help, but they don’t give the money. Is it because African women are Black? Is that what’s stopping them? I need Grazia readers to say: “We trust African women. We know they are the experts in their own communities. We know they have the solutions to their own problems.” I know Grazia readers! I know they can make things happen. They have done it before with The Rough Sex defence. I need them to do this, now.’

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