Dr. Leyla Hussein OBE is a psychotherapist specialising in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. She is the founder of The Dahlia Project, the UK’s first specialist therapeutic service for female genital mutilation (FGM) survivors and is the Global Advocacy Director for the Africa Led Movement to End FGM.
For International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, she writes for Global Citizen on how the world needs to wake up to the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women.
If there was one thing I could wish for in this exact moment, amidst the global pandemic, the social turmoil, and the seemingly endless cycle of self-isolation, it would be a huge, global wake-up call.
We need to wake up to the stark reality: that we are not doing a good enough job to protect women and girls. It may be sad, but it’s true. As a society, we are failing women and girls who are affected by violence, suffering from trauma, and coping with the effects of physical and psychological harm around the world.
We are failing them because our systems do not protect them. In fact, our systems are the very root of the problem.
Last year, the United Nations called attention to the “shadow pandemic” that has spread alongside COVID-19. Domestic violence against women increased significantly due to the confinement imposed by international lockdowns. Unfortunately, this shadow pandemic does not receive the attention it deserves.
The heightened symptoms of misogyny continue to go under-reported, ignored, unaddressed. We don’t see our leaders applying the same urgent measures to protect women and girls from harm as they do to address the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t see them investing billions in their safety. This begs the questions: why don’t we see violence against women and girls being tackled with the same urgency and determination?
Why are our voices being silenced, and this violent reality pushed aside? Could it be because we live within structures that have been designed, maintained, and enforced by male domination and control? My answer to that last question is yes. This must change.
I have been campaigning against female genital mutilation (FGM) for almost two decades. Throughout the trials, tribulations, and small triumphs of my journey, I quickly learned to connect the dots between the cutting of young girls’ genitalia and the misogynistic social system infringing upon every aspect of their day-to-day lives.
A girl undergoing FGM in Somalia; a wife being abused by her husband in England; a woman enduring sexual harassment in Mexico; a female executive not receiving the same pay as her male counterpart in Canada — each of these experiences are tied together through the strings of misogyny, which are rarely discussed and challenged but are right there in plain sight if you are willing to look for them.
To end FGM — and all forms of violence and oppression against women and girls — we must fight to eliminate the misogynist root of the problem, which has been deeply embedded in our political spaces, our legal systems, and our private lives for centuries. It thrives and grows when it succeeds in controlling women’s lives, bodies, and desires. My biggest battle as a campaigner has been to help others recognise that violence and oppression are only possible when the systems surrounding us enable it and we as individuals ignore it.
To uproot the systems and structures of power which tolerate violence, we must first identify the symptoms, then trace them back to the source, and finally apply a targeted approach to cure this illness. I do not exaggerate when I say that violence against women and girls is a terrible illness threatening millions.
Let me try to illustrate. Every 11 seconds, a girl undergoes FGM. Every hour, six women are killed by men, who usually are their own family members or intimate partners. Every year, almost 4 million women around the world are affected by the violent practice of breast ironing. It has been estimated that almost two-thirds of students at UK universities experience sexual violence.
There is no country, rich or poor, where girls and women are not at risk of violence and discrimination just because they are female. The women’s rights activists I work with all fight the same battles from different countries around the world. Governments everywhere need to understand this and take action to end this global pandemic of violence.
I live in the UK, and I am proud that the UK government has generously committed substantial funding through its UK aid programmes to end FGM and tackle sexual violence. But to take forward this work requires global effort and investment.
Days like today — the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM — always remind me that my campaigning is connected to a network of activism aiming to support women and girls worldwide. Many of us are fighting tooth and nail, and often with no funding, to protect women’s well-being.
We desperately want to create safe spaces for women to express their desires and live their lives fully and freely. We want our rights to bodily autonomy to be comprehensively protected. We deserve to raise girls in a world where they are not threatened by mutilation and assault just because they were born female.
If we make the world safer and better for girls, we make it better for everyone. There is a unique sense of potential for change when people of different genders, ages, nationalities, and worldviews come together to stand against the violation, oppression, and dismissal of women and girls.
As a collective, we have more power to push for a holistic approach to ending all of this by pushing for better mental health support, health services, education, cultural change, and policy reforms. I trust in our shared capacity to uproot the conditions that harm us and end tolerance for all violence and oppression.
Maybe these words have helped some readers remember the gravity of the multi-faceted attacks women face on their health. While COVID-19 threatens everyone’s livelihoods, safety, and well-being, the structural inequalities allowing violence against girls and women also demand our attention. Especially because pandemic containment measures and lockdowns have severely limited women’s abilities to take care of their sexual and reproductive health, seek mental health support, control their bodies, and live free from violence. Unfortunately, as the pandemic has overshadowed so many cases of violence, it is now harder than ever to report domestic violence and sexual abuse safely.
We must therefore continue to fight. We continue to call for immediate action to end FGM around the world. To end sexual violence. To end child abuse. To end domestic abuse. To end gender inequality. To end any form of tolerance for violence and oppression against women and girls because we know we must, and can do better.