NEW YORK – Leyla Hussein has become one of the world’s most visible campaigners against female genital mutilation (FGM). However, the FGM survivor, psychotherapist and award-winning advocate for gender equality, thinks the practice can only be stamped out if the affected communities tackle it with just the right combination of political will, expertise and support.
During her time in the field, Hussein said she has seen a lot of mistakes in the battle against FGM because people turn to well-intentioned but untrained survivors for expert policy advice.
“I’m an expert because I’m a therapist who works with women,” she says. “What I’ve seen sometimes, in big government departments, [they] talk to somebody who hasn’t even been to school, just because they’re a survivor from that community. I find that to be quite dangerous.”
Hussein co-founded Daughters of Eve, a nonprofit organization that works to protect women and girls at risk of FGM through support and awareness services, as well as the Dahlia Project, the only counseling service for FGM survivors in the European Union.
Yet City University London and Equality Now estimate that approximately 60,000 girls under the age of 14 in England and Wales were born to mothers who had undergone FGM, and that 10,000 girls under 15 and 127,000 women who have migrated to England and Wales may have undergone FGM, or are living with its consequences.
Now she is turning her attention to the U.S., where she says there is still much work to be done to raise awareness.
“The U.S. has always been on my radar because, of the women who have undergone FGM who live in the West, the majority of them are in the U.S.” she says.
Hussein sat down with Women & Girls in September, when she brought her photo exhibit on survivors and campaigners against FGM, The Face of Defiance, to New York.
Women & Girls: How do you address FGM in your therapy sessions and which communities are you working with?
Leyla Hussein: My focus is on creating a safe space where survivors of FGM can finally recognize this as a form of abuse.
I want people to understand that FGM is one of the worst forms of sexual assault among women and children. However, the communities that practice it don’t see it that way. My therapy space [aims] to get them to that point. Not push them, but [allow them to] get somewhere where they finally would recognize it’s a form of child abuse
I work with some Somalian women and Nigerians, but now you also have white women. People have an assumption [it’s only associated with African cultures]. There’s a woman called Renee who came from a church in the U.S. where they practice FGM. She thought it was just her church that practiced it. This is why these platforms are so important. It’s practiced from Columbia to Russia.
The title of this collection came from [a] white, blonde, blue-eyed girl from Poland. Her father was very abusive. [When] she came out to her family as being gay, in the middle of the night, he went to her room and cut her clitoris off.
Women & Girls: When you evaluate if the child is safe or not, what kind of criteria are you using?
Hussein: First I have a conversation with the parents and a conversation with the child to make sure they are not going to be physically removed from the country or go to their country of origin [to be cut].
For every parent I work with, I [recommend] the parents attend 10 parenting classes where we teach human rights issues, protecting your child from harm, and understanding the psychological trauma of neglecting a child, which is very rare.
It is never just about FGM. It’s about making sure we have daughters who are functioning well in society. And how do we keep them away from all forms of oppression? It’s not just, “Oh, she hasn’t undergone it.” That doesn’t mean she’s not being oppressed in other ways. So, when I’m working with parents, it’s really making sure there’s a lifestyle change.
Women & Girls: Can you a share an example of how you’ve been able to achieve this kind of lifestyle change with parents?
Hussein: In one particular case, the father absolutely hated me when I came in because he knew my profile. He was very resistant. He did not want me as an expert, but the judge insisted. Five, six weeks into it, he joined the campaign itself, because he realized, in the 10 sessions with the family that it wasn’t about “Don’t do FGM.”
I know they were trying to be good parents, but I found out things like, the girls had never been to the cinema. [He realized] there was some sort of myth that was planted in his head. I remember I finished with his family in December and he called me and said, “We’re on our way to Mecca. We’re going to be praying for you, what you did for us as a family.”
So, for me, it wasn’t about FGM. My work is about making sure we end oppression of these girls. If you don’t end the oppression, FGM’s not going to end. We have to come from that perspective.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.