Monday, December 12, 2016

28 Too Many

28TooMany, an initiative that works to address Female Genital Mutilation, offers assistance for women who are under a threat, are vulnerable to, or have faced Female Genital Mutilation.  Ann-Marie, the founder and director of the initiative, shares her story.

Could you talk about yourself - perhaps your childhood, education and your work - to the extent that you deem relevant to the work you do today? 

I spent many years in the corporate sector before moving into development, working for eight overseas relief and development agencies in 18 countries and setting up my own not-for-profit consultancy firm specialising in charity projects. I became aware of female genital mutilation (FGM) while working in Sudan and I knew then that I had to do something about it.  I trained, studied and volunteered for five years and during this time, I recognised the importance of connecting the different groups working on the ground to share knowledge and best practice of FGM.   

How did 28TooMany come about? What was your defining moment behind setting up the initiative?

In 2005 while I was working for an international aid organisation in West Darfur, Sudan, I met an 11 year girl in a refugee camp who had undergone FGM at the age of 5. When the girl was 10 her village was attacked, her family killed and she was raped. She survived the rape but was left alone and pregnant. After months of hardship, we found her struggling with obstructed labour as a result of the FGM. Fortunately we were able to get her to our medical centre and thanks to the skill of the doctors and nurses both the young mother and her baby survived.  I was so moved by meeting Aisha that I set out to find out more about FGM and what was being done to stop it.  I realised that in many countries there was still little support and few programmes to eradicate FGM and even less accurate information and research available to them.  This led me to found 28 Too Many in 2010 in order to provide much needed research into FGM, to advocate to end this harmful practice and to support local interventions against it. 

FGM is often encouraged by cultural legitimacy / sanction. What are some of your key challenges in addressing the issue?

It is vital that FGM is addressed at all levels – from the top down with laws, through to community level by those who practise it and those who have undergone FGM.  FGM is carried out for different reasons in different communities and there is not just one “quick-fix” solution that works for all.  For example, in Kenya, it is often connected with ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies and carried out on older girls, whereas in Nigeria, the majority of FGM cases occur before a girl reaches 5 years old.  It is therefore essential to understand the cultural background that fuels FGM and to address the individual issues that sustain this harmful practice.

FGM directly assaults the physical and sexual independence of a woman, and is easily a
practice that is fuelled by and fuels patriarchy. How can we involve men and boys in the course of addressing the issue?

Involving men and boys in the work to end FGM is absolutely key and it is good to see that many men are now getting involved in our work.  For example, the Maasai Warriors are a cricket team from a remote area of Kenya who are working to educate and change attitudes about FGM in their community, where FGM prevalence is particularly high.  Their film, Warriors (, which featured our work with the charity ‘Cricket without Boundaries’ in Kenya,  is an amazing account of the work they are doing to change attitudes in their community. 

What are some of your key challenges in the work you do? How have, or how do you, overcome them?

It is key that support to end FGM impacts at all levels and for this reason we believe that partnerships are essential.  We work together with communities as well as national and international NGOs and our advocacy work demands that governments take responsibility for ending FGM, which includes the introduction, and equally important, the implementation, of laws banning FGM. One of the key challenges we face is that the reasons for FGM tend to be deeply rooted in tradition and culture and it is therefore essential that these aspects are not ignored.  Education plays a huge role in this and it is extremely important that the social and economic constraints on women are addressed and that men are included in the work to end FGM. 

What keeps you going? What inspires you?

I think anyone who has been involved with the work to end FGM will understand my passion to end it.  I have many friends who have undergone FGM, I have seen the consequences of it through my work and I have also seen that change is happening.  But there is still a long way to go and this is what keeps me going.  I hope we will see an end to FGM in my lifetime, and I really do believe this is possible, in the same way that the tradition of foot binding in China was brought to an end. There are so many wonderful people working to end FGM, many of them FGM survivors such as our Trustee, Hoda Ali, and these people are incredibly inspiring in their dedication and their engagement in the work to end FGM.

Could you perhaps share some anecdotes / positive stories and examples from your work so far?

Community education has a very important role to play in changing attitudes towards FGM and it is incredibly encouraging when you hear about success stories in the work to end FGM.  I met two girls in Kenya who at 12 and 14 had run away to escape FGM after attending a health club at school. They later went back to their community to convince the community Elders to stand against FGM and no girls have been cut in their community since then.  The girls are now 18 and 20 and one works in health and the other in education.  Such positive stories really reinforce my belief that we can end FGM.