FGM. Three letters that disguise the horrible reality of the words behind them: female genital mutilation. It’s a procedure where the female genitalia is partially or fully removed – for no medical reason – through a process called ‘cutting’.
It’s normally carried out on girls up to the age of 15, for various cultural, religious and social reasons and normally with the intention that it will benefit the girl in some way. But the truth is very different – it’s a harmful practice that isn’t required by any religion.
At least 200 million girls across 30 countries are living today with the effects of their FGM procedure. Although it has been illegal in the UK since 1985, more than 20,000 girls are thought to be at risk every year across the nation.
Grace Mbrou, 19, volunteers with UK-based charity AFRUCA in Manchester. Celebrating their 15th anniversary this year, the organisation helps to tackle the gaps for child protection within African communities in the UK, with part of their work concerned with challenging attitudes to FGM.
“It’s something that’s only just began gaining momentum,” said Grace, who is continuing her advocacy against FGM through studying to become a doctor.
“At the end of my six years of training, most medical professionals here in the UK will know about FGM.
“I’ve got an advantage having worked on tackling the issue with AFRUCA. I now want to take that experience at the end of my studies and inform more people about dangers of FGM in the UK.”
Grace admitted that she has always had an interest in health and medicine after growing up in Ghana and spending her childhood shadowing her mother, who worked with the Salvation Army.
“It comes from my background. My mum was part of a health trust who worked with street children, assessing their issues and dealing with their health problems,” said Grace.
“Seeing what it was like in Ghana, and having a keen interest in science, I knew I wanted to care for people and fulfil part of me that wanted to help people back in Ghana.”
'You can't force people to understand'
Describing AFRUCA’s success in its integration of children from the age of 14 into the work of the charity, Grace said that part of her work involved going to schools, faith groups and community groups to inform other young people on what FGM is and what the risks are.
“We believe in the work of young people to influence change and to inform and raise awareness,” she said.
“Of course, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to hear about FGM. Others have been in circumstances where they’ve been confronted while speaking.
“Grown men have told them directly that FGM makes women pure, less promiscuous, and as a young person it can be difficult to challenge an older person.
“At the end of the day, you can’t force people to understand. All you can do is give them the facts and hope for them to understand and be educated.
“Not just to challenge the people who believe in FGM, but those who’ve had it done. That’s the only way to break the cycle and make them realise it isn’t based on scientific facts but myths.”
'It's going on in the dark'
Having moved to Bulgaria earlier in the month and about to begin the first year of her degree, Grace’s six year course will involve four years spent applying the theory into practice.
The law surrounding FGM is complex in the UK. Although it has been illegal for more than 30 years, many parents or relatives take their children abroad during school holidays to avoid detection.
“The thing is, the law is there, but if there’s no-one there to see it happening, if it’s going on in the dark, there’s nothing the law can do to stop it,” Grace said. “But a lot of people are still ignorant about FGM and what can the law do to stop it.”
And the best way for people to become involved with fighting FGM? Raising awareness, says Grace.
“AFRUCA has seen the work of many people long before I started. It’s taken on the bastion to bring the cause to Manchester, but a lot of different charities out there are also raising awareness.
“You don’t need to know everything before you start. All you need is a knowledge of what FGM is and that’s all it takes.
“It’s not a good practice, it’s based on unfounded beliefs, it’s illegal – just the basic facts are enough.
“Sometimes people can think that because they haven’t experienced it themselves, they can’t speak out. That’s not the case at all. Everyone’s in a position to help.”
ICS gave me experience
Deciding to apply for an ICS placement to broaden her knowledge of health issues and gain first-hand experience of working in a developing country, Grace chose to go on a placement with Raleigh specifically because of their Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programmes.
“I wanted something productive to do in my gap year and I thought ICS would be perfect for me to learn from helping a community with health and sustainability issues before I started studying,” Grace explained.
“And now after taking part in ICS, I realised that it’s not specifically Ghana I’d like to work in later down the line, but just more generally a developing country with health problems.
“Being able to go to Nicaragua put me in a position of being able to help change, and help people first hand. I would now would like to be part of improving the situation in a developing country.”