More than 200 million girls and women live with the consequences of female genital cutting (FGC), and a further 3.9 million are at risk of being cut each year. We speak to the charity at the forefront of the movement to end it
Julia Lalla-Maharajh was volunteering in Ethiopia when she first encountered female genital cutting (FGC) – a harmful practice where the female genitals are cut, injured, or changed, without a medical reason to do so.
Back in the 2000s, Julia admits she didn’t know much about the practice, but was shocked to learn that 74% of the women in the country underwent FGC. She soon saw the way that FGC can entirely change the trajectory of a girl’s life – from child-marriage, to school dropouts, and a lifetime of physical and psychological damage.
“I then met two adorable little girls in Lalibela, Ethiopia, who were trying to sell me trinkets,” Julia tells us, as she reflects on the moment she knew she had to take a stand. “The thought that they could be subjected to FGC, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, compelled me to dedicate my life to this cause.”
And so Julia founded the Orchid Project. Named so to represent a sense of blossoming that happens when girls reach their full potential, the Orchid Project is a charity that uses advocacy and partnerships with grassroots organisations to support abandonment of FGC.
So, how do they do it?
What is FGC?
Before we can start looking at solutions, we have to understand what FGC means, how dire the consequences can be, and how urgent the call for change is.
Across the world, there are four main types of FGC – also known as ‘female genital mutilation’ (FGM) or ‘female circumcision’. The procedures are usually done on girls from infancy up until 15 years old, and may involve the removal of the clitoris, labia minora or labia majora, a sealing of the vaginal opening with just a small hole left for urine and menstration, or pricking, scraping or burning of the vulva. Generally, these procedures take place without anaesthetics, and also without the girl’s consent, although it’s also increasingly happening in medical settings.
There are various reasons why parents may choose the procedure for their daughters, though these are often tied up in ideas about purity and virginity, and women who are not cut may be shunned by their community later in life.
The World Health Organisation is clear that there are no known health benefits of FGC, while the UN recognises FGC as a violation of girls’ and women’s human rights. And yet FGC happens in 30 countries around the globe – though this is only the total for countries where national data is available. From anecdotal reports, the Orchid Project believes the number is at least 45.
The majority of cases take place across Africa and in Iraq, Yemen and Indonesia, but FGC also happens in immigrant communities, and it is estimated that there are around 500,000 women in Europe living with the consequences of FGC.
On the ground
Rather than a religious requirement, FGC is a ‘social norm’ – or cultural tradition – held by a community, that is thought to date back to 2,200 BC. For this reason, supporting communities to lead change themselves is the most effective way of making a change, and had to be an essential part of the work that the Orchid Project does.
“When tackling any issue, it’s essential that the voices of those it affects are front and centre in the solution,” says Julia, who points to the charity’s grassroots partners such as S.A.F.E. Kenya, which recently saw 4,000 Maasai come together to publically declare an end to FGC in Loita Hills, south Kenya.
“FGC is often a highly sensitive topic. In the communities we work with in Kenya, West Africa and India, it may never have been spoken about before.
“That’s why it’s vital to end the practice from within, rather than being imposed by outsiders. What we’re seeing now is whole communities coming together to discuss their experiences around FGC for the first time, through the work of pioneering, grassroots organisations.”
Closer to home
“One of the most common misconceptions about FGC is that it only happens in Africa,” says Julia. “It’s important to note that the practice continues within refugee, diaspora and migrant communities all around the world, including in the UK.”
In the UK, FGC is a criminal offence that comes with a prison sentence of up to five years. Despite this, research from City University estimates that 144,000 girls are at risk of FGC in England and Wales.
In an effort to raise awareness that this is happening all around us, in 2018 the Orchid Project ran their London Postcard campaign. Across the capital, 1,000 postcards – with messages about FGC and how it affects girls globally – were left around the city.
“FGC isn’t something that is just happening ‘somewhere else’,” says Julia. “It’s an issue we can all do something about, even just by talking.”
A non-judgemental approach
A key characteristic of the Orchid Project’s work is that it is ‘non-judgemental’. To Julia, this means working with the communities in a way that does not create barriers, or alienate anyone.
“It means approaching the subject as equals, without casting judgement on a community or why they practice FGC,” Julia tells us.
“It’s important to understand that, in the communities we work with, parents choose to cut their daughters because they believe it is the right thing to do to ensure her future. FGC is often a deeply entrenched social norm, held in place by a whole community. It continues unquestioned, because it’s a tradition that is passed from generation to generation.”
Julia explains that it’s common for those in the communities to not make the connection between FGC and its devastating health consequences.
“It’s important to approach this subject without judgement in order to open up a dialogue, so these issues can be discussed,” says Julia.
In spite of the prevalence of FGC, and the devastating effects that it has on survivors around the world, Julia tells us that she is hopeful for the future.
“Thousands of communities all over the world have already abandoned FGC,” she tells us. “Their daughters and all future generations will benefit from that historic decision, and I know we can spread that change all around the world.”
In 2015, the UN set a goal to end FGC by 2030. It’s ambitious, but it can be done. Whether through becoming an advocate, spreading awareness, or raising funds for vital inter-community projects, if we’re willing to take it, each of us has a role to play in the ending of FGC.
To find out more about the Orchid Project and to donate, visit orchidproject.org