Dr. Leyla Hussein OBE is a psychotherapist, specialising in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. She is a lecturer on female genital mutilation (FGM) and speaker on gender rights.
Hussein founded The Dahlia Project, the UK’s first specialist therapeutic service for FGM survivors. She's also the global advocacy director and deputy team leader for the Africa-Led Movement to End FGM which saw its budget from UK aid cut by 80% in 2021.
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I often say I would never recommend activism as a career path for anyone. It is truly gruelling, dangerous, and often thankless work. Yet for some of us, there is no other choice.
As a survivor of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) myself, campaigning against it has never been easy. What has kept me going are the many victories we’ve had in the years since I started, along with the desperate need to protect my daughter, which catalysed this path for me.
However, after nearly two decades of fighting to end violence against women and girls, the COVID-19 pandemic has absolutely exhausted me. It is heartbreaking to see us moving backwards, to see the attention turn elsewhere, the momentum slow, and the money dwindle and be redirected. We are now at risk to lose so much progress, and the fire of this fight needs to be stoked.
How can we begin to understand the scale of the devastation of the pandemic? How do we find the hidden impacts obscured behind shame, stigma, and oppression?
Before the pandemic, we knew that every 11 seconds a girl became a survivor of FGM. In the wake of the pandemic, we know this number has now increased drastically as part of the explosion of violence against women and girls during our year of isolation. Staying at home protects us from the virus, but for many women and girls home is not a safe place.
In fact, staying at home can be incredibly dangerous — to the point that the UN termed the uptick in violence against women a “shadow pandemic”.
It terrifies me to even think of the global scale of it. How many girls are being cut? How many girls have dropped out of school? How many girls have been married off? How many vulnerable girls have disappeared and will never be reached by us? We won’t know these numbers until years after the pandemic has faded into a distant memory, but for the survivors, the trauma and scars will be permanent.
What I want everyone to know is that FGM cannot be tackled in isolation. We have to acknowledge its place in the pandemic of violence against women, as part of the structures of power that seek to control us.
As long as patriarchal structures exist, our girls will never be truly free and safe. The silence around FGM is deafening. It truly demonstrates the aversion society has to acknowledging, nevermind celebrating, female sexuality. FGM will never gain visibility and be properly addressed if we can’t speak about women’s bodies openly.
The stigma and shame around women’s sexuality must be dismantled and our bodies must belong to us and no one else. FGM is a global issue, but it is pushed to the margins even in conversations about global justice. It particularly affects those at the sidelines of who our society deems as worthy of protection and dignity. We see this when we look at the most vulnerable child on the planet — the Black African girl.
Where is the call of Black Lives Matter when we talk about this violence? Where is the momentum for protecting the Black girls who will suffer lifelong trauma due to FGM?
“Staying at home protects us from the virus, but for many women and girls, home is not a safe space.”
I want the world to know that this is a truly critical moment in our history. The pandemic has devastated the momentum we had to truly bring an end to this violence, and it has exhausted both the activists at the front lines and their funding.
As a British woman, I am extremely proud and grateful that the UK government is funding our work and investing in the future of women and girls. Not many governments are doing this, and it has been extremely encouraging for me to see the UK lead on this front.
This support continues to be invaluable to our work to end FGM. However, the resources we have now are a fraction of what we had two years ago. While we are incredibly thankful for the aid from the government, our budget at the Africa-Led Movement to End FGM, where I work as the global advocacy director, has been cut by 80% in the past year as a result of an overall cut of about £4.5 billion from the UK’s aid budget, that was voted through this summer.
The organisations fighting this violence on the front lines have done a phenomenal job through the incredibly demanding conditions of the pandemic, but as activists, we are worked to the bone, constantly at risk, and now in desperate need of funding and support.
At this moment as we slowly emerge from the pandemic, we need the global community to wake up and come together to help protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We owe it to our girls to protect them from one of the most harmful forms of child abuse and sexual assault. We owe it to the women who are survivors to not have to see this violence perpetuated in another generation. We owe it to ourselves to dismantle the worldwide system of patriarchy that normalises and thrives on the control of women’s bodies and sexuality.
If we as the global community don’t come together to fund this fight comprehensively and long term, more girls will be mutilated. More girls will have to live with the physical and mental scars of the violence exerted on them in an effort to take away their right to their own bodies. The safety of women and girls must be an absolute priority, and the momentum we’ve lost in the pandemic must be recovered.
If the global community does not step up right now to fill the gap in resources that the pandemic has created the message will be clear: we are comfortable looking the other way as women and girls suffer the devastation of not just one but two pandemics.
The blunt reality is that we need money. We can’t protect women and girls if we don’t have the resources. I want to use this moment to call on all donors and supporters to step up: share information, advocate for the rights of women and girls, and above all, fund the work we do.
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