GUEST BLOG: Raising awareness about FGM
In What was Never Said by YA author Emma Craigie, we meet Zahra, who has grown up in England but was born in Somalia. She remembers her early years in Africa with her sisters: the warm sun, the gunfire and the night the ‘cutters’ came.
Here Emma reveals the chance encounter in Bristol with young campaigners against female genital mutilation (FGM) that prompted her to become involved in the issue herself and was also to lead to her writing this book.
What Was Never Said tells the story of Zahra, a 15year-old girl who lives in Bristol. The sudden appearance of three women she remembers from her early childhood sets her on a mission to protect herself and her sister from the fate which killed their older sister: female genital mutilation.
The novel is in many ways a universal story about growing up, facing adversity and taking control of your own life. But the particular circumstances which Zahra faces were inspired by an amazing group of young people who I met in Bristol in 2012 when I was researching a very different book.
The last three years have seen a massive increase in the amount of media attention given to the abuse of FGM, which is the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The NSPCC has, for the first time, set up a FGM helpline and since September 2014 it has been mandatory, again for the first time, for FGM cases to be recorded by health officials. The reason why I wrote the book and the reason why FGM has been so much in public consciousness is one and the same: throughout the world, and particularly in Britain, the young people of FGM affected communities have started to speak up and their voices are incredibly powerful.
The young people who inspired me belong to an organization called Integrate Bristol. When I first met them, they had just won a prize for an anti-FGM film called Silent Scream. Since then, they have lobbied Michael Gove in person about the role of schools in preventing FGM, they have met Ban-Ki Moon, shared a platform with Malala, appeared onNewsnight. They have brought the abuse of FGM, as a form of violence against women and girls, on to the public agenda. They now send ambassadors all over Britain, advising schools on FGM education.
The students I met in Bristol are predominantly from the Somali community. But FGM is not restricted to Somalia. It is an ancient practice going back at least to the time of the Pharaohs. The World Health Organization says that there are currently 100-140 million women and girls who have survived FGM in the world. There are no statistics about the numbers who have died, or about how many have suffered infertility, pain, loss of sexual enjoyment or difficulty in childbirth. But thanks to the campaigns of brave campaigners around the world, in many cases facing violent reactions from traditionalists, FGM is being increasingly outlawed. In the last few weeks, Nigeria has joined the growing list of countries where the practice is a criminal offence.
Zahra’s story in What Was Never Said is not the story of any of the young people whom I met through Integrate Bristol. In fact the book imagines a world without the support and solidarity that Integrate provides for people affected by FGM. The thing that Zahra shares with the wonderful young British Somalis who I met is her determination to survive and her determination to save others. The story is specific, but the values are universal.