In February this year Fahma Mohamed was a 17-year-old student studying for her A-levels in Bristol. One of nine girls from a British Somali family she was, by her own account, not one for the spotlight. Over in Atlanta, Georgia, Jaha Dukureh, a 24-year-old woman originally from the Gambia, was juggling a full-time job in a bank with motherhood.
Six months later these two young women, who have led Guardian-backed campaigns on both sides of the Atlantic, have found themselves at the heart of the movement to end female genital mutilation (FGM) – a movement that in recent months has, astonishingly, put girls’ issues at the very top of the political agenda.
At the historic Girl Summit in London this week, the prime minister, David Cameron, announced that the government would legally oblige teachers, doctors and social workers to report FGM, train professionals and criminalise parents if they failed to protect their children. Ministers from Somalia to Burkina Faso vowed to stamp out FGM – a traditional practice that involves the removal of a girl’s outer sexual organs – while the Obama administration confirmed it would be carrying out the first study for 17 years into the number of girls and women living with FGM in the US.
So, how did the fight against FGM, described by Germaine Greer in the late 1990s as "an attack on cultural identity", become front page news, endorsed by the prime minister and acknowledged by the White House?
"I think there was a collective dawning that this was not a cultural issue to be tiptoed around – we were talking about girls having their genitals cut off," says Lib Dem international development minister Lynne Featherstone, a staunch campaigner in the government’s ranks. "The sisterhood marched, the media marched with them, and the men joined in behind."
On the wall of the Orchid project, a London charity dedicated to ending FGM, is a series of newspaper cuttings that reveal how the movement to stamp out the practice – which affects more than 130,000 women in England and Wales, according to new figures – has gained momentum. “On the UN’s international day against FGM in 2011 we got one story in the Observer, and that was it,” says Ruthie Taylor. “This year, it was everywhere, including the front page of the Guardian. It’s unbelievable how things have changed.”
Mohamed, who found herself on that front page as the face of a ground-breaking campaign in which the Guardian teamed up with Change.org, says it took on a life of its own. The petition became Change.org’s fastest growing UK petition and within days had gathered more than 230,000 signatures. “I was just in awe of how many people supported us,” she says. “In the past it was such a slog fighting against something that people didn’t even know existed. Lots of people denied it was happening – they didn’t like girls speaking up for one another. Now finally people were listening.”
Within days of the launch the then education secretary Michael Gove had agreed to a meeting, and soon met demands to write to all teachers in England and Wales about FGM. Then Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who called Fahma her sister in a fight for girls’ rights, backed the petition, and Fahma received a call to meet UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, who called her an inspiration.
Keen to enhance the success of the UK campaign, the Guardian contacted Dukureh, a survivor of FGM in Atlanta who had started her own petition in the US with Equality Now, calling for action on FGM from the Obama administration. When the petition was relaunched on May 12the impact was immediate.
"Before the Guardian got on board we were getting maybe 10 signatures a day, then suddenly it was 1,000, " says Dukureh. "It was exactly what we needed." Within a month more than 50 members of Congress joined the campaign and Dukureh met with officials at the departments of justice and education. This week, while Dukureh was in London for theGirl Summit, the Obama administration quietly announced that it would carry out a study into FGM and had set up a working group – a key demand of her campaign. Fellow campaigner Mohamed was one of the first to fly into her arms. “I went crazy with her,” says the teenager. “As soon as we met it was like there was a bond between us, like we were part of the same sisterhood.”
That youthful energy – palpable at the Girl Summit when Malala was welcomed on stage like a rock star – has played a critical role in getting politicians to listen, said Equality Now's Efua Dorkenoo, a long-time campaigner. “A lot of strategic work has been done for many years behind the scenes,” she says. “But I think it is that second generation requesting to be protected that has pushed it on to a higher agenda and emboldened the politicians to take action.” News organisations that have campaigned on the issue, including the Guardian and the London Evening Standard, as well as broader media coverage, has also caught the attention of the public and politicians, she said.
One such second-generation campaigner is Nimko Ali, a co-founder of charity Daughters of Eve. She also credits female politicians, such asFeatherstone and Justine Greening at Dfid at DfID and Jane Ellison in the Department of Health, who have passionately taken up the cause. “Those gutsy women have made a difference,” she says. “At the Girl Summit Nick Clegg and David Cameron just came along and announced the policies they’d fought for. People said it was just a political move getting more women into the cabinet, but it does make a difference.”
While the push to end FGM has been welcomed by campaigners, some have urged caution at rushing through well-intentioned but potentially ill-thought out policies. The Royal College of General Practitioners wrote to the Guardian this week warning that legal sanctions against health professionals who fail to report FGM could be counterproductive, and may discourage women who have been cut from seeing a doctor. “FGM is a terrible crime, but we must think about the unintended consequences and whether this could be driven underground,” said Nigel Mathers, secretary of the RCGP. Sarah McCulloch, who runs a grassroots FGM support service in Sheffield, has already received worried calls from professionals. “What worries me is that after the hard work of encouraging young people to challenge the issues, they may be driven them back into silence if they feel that they may put their parents at risk or arrest,” she says.
But campaigners are confident that, while huge challenges remain – more than 130m women are living with FGM around the world and another three million every year are at risk – the global community as a whole is moving in the right direction. Campaigning from grassroots organisations, agencies such as Unicef, and larger NGOs such as Equality Now and Plan International are getting results throughout the world.
A UN resolution banned FGM in December 2012, and by the time of its Status of Women conference in March 2013, 25 African countries had outlawed cutting. Mohamed, who will continue to push for FGM awareness to be taught in UK schools, is optimistic about the future. “I know great things are going to come after this,” she says. “It’s like being on a rollercoaster, but we just keep on going up. There’s no going back down for us now.”
Fahma Mohamed was born in Bristol in 1996, the eldest of nine girls born to Somali parents. The 17-year-old student at City Academy Bristol (CAB) is a trustee of Integrate Bristol, a Bristol-based charity set up by teacher Lisa Zimmermann. She was not cut herself, but comes from an affected community. Fahma agreed to becoming the face of the Guardian’s campaign, because she wanted people to take more notice of FGM. “I don’t think any of us realised how big it would be,” she says. “We were just so happy that people were finally listening.” Since starting the campaign Mohamed has spoken to press around the world, has met Michael Gove and other senior politicians and was recently invited to Buckingham Palace to meet princes William and Harry. “A few months ago I would have fainted,” she says. “But now I’m not intimidated by anyone and, if it’s possible, I’m even more passionate than before.”
Jaha Dukureh was born in Gambia, and went through the most severe form of FGM as a baby. Her clitoris and labia were removed, and she was sewn up so that only a small hole remained. The 24-year-old mother of three was pushed into an arranged marriage at 15 and moved to New York, where she was “re-opened” so that her husband could have sex with her. She fled the marriage and moved to Atlanta, where she remarried, put herself through college, and set up her own NGO,Safe Hands for Girls. She recently gave up her job as a banking adviser, after receiving her first grant of $20,000, but does not yet receive enough funding to pay herself. “The day after the campaign launch I went home and blasted Beyoncé’s I Was Here,” she remembers. “I felt like my whole life was out there but it was worth it – suddenly people were talking about this. I could see the impact it was having, not only in the US but with people in Africa and back in Gambia. I felt fortunate to make a difference. You know – I was here.”