David Cameron’s Ambitious Plan To End Female Genital Mutilation

The British government is putting its money where its mouth is with a bold plan to end the barbaric practice. Lizzie Crocker reports.

03.06.13 9:45 AM ET

Binta Jobe is haunted by memories of undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM) at age 9 in her native country, the Gambia, where the practice is still legal. Her family forced her into the bush, where she went under the knife of an elderly woman with no medical training and no anesthetic. “I dream of blood,” Jobe, now 23, recently told The Guardian.

TUZ KHURMATU, IRAQ - AUGUST 25:  Sheelan Anwar Omer, 7, continues to cry after a female circumcision was preformed on her. More than 60 percent of women in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq have been circumcised, according to a study conducted this year. In at least one Kurdish territory, 95 percent of women have undergone the practice, which human rights groups call female genital mutilation.    Photographed August, 25, 2008 in Tuz Khurmatu, Iraq. (Photo by Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Andrea Bruce/The Washington Post via Getty

Sheelan Anwar Omer, 7, continues to cry after genital cutting was performed on her. More than 60 percent of women in Kurdish areas of northern Iraq have been circumcised, according to a study conducted in 2010.

Now based in Liverpool, she is seeking asylum from the Gambia and fighting to protect her three-year-old daughter, Aisha, from the insidious tradition. Jobe moved to the UK in 2008 with her older husband but left him weeks after her daughter’s birth, when circumcision looked inevitable for her baby girl. “I just want Aisha to be able to grow up stronger than I am,” Jobe said. “We have no choice about it in our country. I did not understand that I had rights until I came to the UK.”

Aisha is among 24,000 girls in Britain—where the practice is banned—who the British government says are at risk of being sent abroad by their families to undergo FGM, also known as “cutting” and defined as any procedure to remove or injure external female genitalia. But the British government is hoping to reduce the practice by 30 percent, both at home and abroad, over the next five years with the “largest ever” international investment to end FGM. On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron is set to announce the massive undertaking—an investment of 35 million pounds from Britain’s foreign aid budget dedicated to eradicating the procedure across the globe within a generation.

On the heels of the U.N.’s global ban on FGM in December, with two thirds of U.N. member states co-sponsoring the resolution, Britain’s drive is poised to make significant strides toward eliminating an egregious human-rights violation that has been performed on as many as 140 million women worldwide, most of them young girls at the time the procedure was performed, according to the World Health Organization. The practice is most rampant in Africa but also occurs throughout the Middle East, South Asia, South America as well as in immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Oceania.

“I think the ambition is entirely possible if we get the level of resources needed,” Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder of the nonprofit Orchid Project, a group dedicated to ending FGM, told The Daily Beast. FGM has traveled along with the cultures that practice it, even to diaspora families in the U.S. and U.K., where the procedure is illegal. But Lalla-Maharajh is confident that properly allocated financial resources and collaborative efforts with smaller NGOs worldwide could lead communities to rapidly abandon the tradition.

According to Lalla-Maharajh, more than 6,000 communities worldwide have already publicly vowed to abandon the procedure, including 168 in the Gambia, where the international nonprofit Tostan has been implementing its Community Empowerment Program since 2007.

“If we can successfully invest in these communities, I think there is every possibility that [Cameron’s] initiative could spread and ultimately end this practice in our lifetime, in the same way that the Chinese tradition of foot-binding did over a 20-year period,” said Lalla-Maharajh.

Similarly, she’s hopeful that the investment will help raise international awareness around the procedure and inspire countries to implement similar financial programs.

Still, the U.K.’s drive will face obstacles in countries like the Gambia, where FGM is legal and roughly 78 percent of the female population undergo the procedure, according to UNICEF. The initiative could also hit snags in countries where, despite legislation banning the practice, intense pressure is placed on mothers to have their children carry on the tradition.

“FGM is run by the grandes dames of these communities, and they get very high status if they crack the whip,” said Hilary Burrage, a sociologist specializing in FGM and equal opportunity for women in the U.K. “There is a sense of shame about it as well as a sense of honor.”

Burrage said she’s thrilled that David Cameron is spearheading a new movement against FGM, but that she remains wary about the aim of doing away with the practice within a generation.

“The learning curve is going to be very steep for the coalition government,” she said. “I think there’s a long way to go.”

“I think we have an historic opportunity given that communities are choosing to stop the practice, the U.N. has passed a resolution banning it, so we have support from the grassroots to the tree tops,” said Maharajh. “[Cameron’s] investment is the last bit of the puzzle that we need to really get things moving.”