Q&A: Ann-Marie Wilson

FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) affects 3000 girls in the UK each year. Founder of 28 Too Many, Ann-Marie Wilson, talked to Lucinda Van Der Hart about the devastating impact of this illegal practice

Why did you start 28 Too Many?

AM In essence I met a little, ten year-old girl who had a baby. She was five years old when she was subjected to FGM, and was then raped at 10 in North Sudan. The armed militia had come through her village, killing everyone, raping her, and burning her house down. We found her at a Christian medical clinic I was working at. I knew I had to do something about this issue. She had a baby, was an orphan, and was known in Muslim circles as a ‘spoiler’ (someone who isn’t a virgin) – who was going to stand up for her? She had no family, and would most probably be sold into slavery as some kind of fourth wife. It felt like a shard of glass went into my heart – it was that Esther ‘for such a time as this’ moment. I had worked in HR up until then, and it would have been a lot easier if I’d been a medic or something like that – if I was God I would have chosen someone else!

Since 2005 I’ve re-trained in basic midwifery, studied cross-cultural skills and Islamic, and completed a doctorate, before starting work on the charity in 2010. I’ve also been out to Somalia to work in refugee camps; there was no point starting something until I knew what I was letting myself in for. I thought I’d be taken more seriously if I had some background.

When you mention FGM to someone in the UK, they may assume that it is an African issue - if they know what it is at all. Are there signs or indicators to spot it happening in the UK?

AM Just to give you some statistics, it’s likely to happen to at least 3,000 girls in the UK a year, particularly in what we call ‘the summer cutting season.’ It’ll be happening in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Exeter, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Newcastle – those urban places where people from an FGM practising culture (such as Somalia, where it’s still practised by up to 97 per cent of people) may have settled. It would either happen here in Britain, at what they call a cutting party, or girls are taken out of the country for the procedure.

What we want isn’t to find someone who has been cut, but someone who is at risk of it. So it would be someone who is looking forward to a party, or a special holiday where they’d be ‘becoming a woman’. So some signs to look out for would be that they’re getting gifts, special clothes, that there is a level of secrecy around a trip, that they are being taken out of school early, or are evidently scared themselves.

What’s the UK response and what support is available here?

AM At the end of the day, it is abuse. That’s what churches need to understand: it’s not cultural practice, it’s child abuse and is punishable with 12 years in prison, even for those who aid and abet. There are very few prosecutions, because children don’t want to take their parents to court. I think we’d rather it was stamped out, with girls able to stand up for their own rights and seek protection before it happens - rather than putting parents in prison.

What is happening in the UK to put the practice to end?

AM There was a leaflet and pilot study put out by the Home Office last year, copied from a Dutch system. The idea is that a girl keeps it with her so that, if she is taken abroad, she can pull it out and say: ‘No, this is illegal in my country, I’ll be in trouble when I get home.’ They’re freely available from the Home Office website. It’s not the solution, but it’s a start. It’s something. They’re being distributed at VISA points in overseas countries. So the government is doing something useful, but it’s not enough.

We (along with the NSPCC) have set up a helpline. We did some training for Childline to try and get the word out there, and what came out of that was the idea of a helpline to deal specifically with this.

What have you seen in the few years you’ve been running 28 Too Many?

AM It was never really talked about before – it was never in the press, it wasn’t talked about in churches. But I’ve probably talked to about 3,000 people in churches in the last year,on radio, in church (LC) newspapers – the Church (UC) is prepared to get involved. I spoke at an event in Wales recently and was able to share that a church in Tanzania benefits from FGM through fees for blessings and funerals. So the issue is about setting up alternatives, providing role models, and standing up to say that there is no religious mandate for this.

There was a case in Camden recently where a ten or twelve year-old came back from holiday and said that she couldn’t go swimming. The school was suspicious and called social services. The family went ballistic and the daughter denied it all. So what should happen next? She then started putting on weight and the school said that she was probably embarrassed about putting a swimming costume on, whereas she was probably retaining menses because her periods couldn’t come out. Things like that – people just don’t understand. We need to advocate to schools and social services. It’s not in the curriculum - with budget cuts there are no fees for training - but we will go wherever we’re asked to.

What can children’s workers do?

AM Acknowledging the problem is key, but joining us to advocate to lobby for change is vital as well. I’ve talked to youth groups in my church and what it brings up is not just FGM per se, but issues of pornography, beauty – that the body is unattractive and needs changing. We need to join together to put an end to FGM.

For more information about FGM and 28 Too Many, visit 28toomany.org

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