New York — Every country must ban female genital mutilation (FGM) to protect girls and help end poverty, Somali-born British campaigner Nimco Ali said as she launched a global project to end the practice by 2030.

About 3.9-million girls have their external genitalia partially or totally removed every year despite health risks, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and this could rise to 4.6-million by 2030 due to population growth.

Ali said FGM is at the heart of gender inequality and called on all countries to act to end the abuse in line with the UN’s global goals agreed upon in 2015 and save 68-million girls at risk between now and 2030.

“Everyone knows that FGM is wrong,” Ali, 36, said in New York on the sidelines of the UN’s annual meeting.

“We need to lobby governments to act, but we also need to fund African women at the front line as they are the orchestrators of their own destiny.”

She said she hopes launching her campaign — The Five Foundation, The Global Partnership to End FGM — on Wednesday will build a network of activists and find new sources of funding to end the abuse of women that she calls a way “to put them in their place”.

“You will never end poverty or have peace if you pin girls down aged five, cut them, break them and sell them for some cows,” said Ali who moved to Britain from Somaliland when she was four years old.

“There is a massive link between the way countries treat 50% of their population — women — and their prosperity and success.”

Long-term complications

Ali’s campaigning stems from her own childhood when she was cut at age seven while in Djibouti, East Africa, on holiday with her family. It led to health complications and reconstructive surgery.

FGM is linked with severe long-term complications including cysts, infections and complications in childbirth. In the most severe cases, the vaginal opening is sewn up.

“For me the act of FGM was not the most painful experience, but the fact that it just didn’t mean anything,” Ali said.

“I only forgave my mother finally last year.”

After studying law and joining the public service, Ali began actively campaigning against the practice that is still widespread in about 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Many people believe the ritual is an important tradition and religious obligation, though it is not in the Koran, and up to 96% of women in countries such as Somalia, Egypt and Sudan are cut.

In 2010 Ali set up Daughters of Eve to support girls in Britain affected by FGM, but her public lambasting of FGM and its acceptance in many African societies came at a price.

“I received death threats, my family stopped talking to me, I was heckled by other Somalis,” said Ali, whose work led to her receiving an Order of the British Empire (OBE) this year.

“But a lot of young Somali women are thankful that I took one for the team though it is a massive sacrifice to be so public about being different.”

Ali, who published her first book this year, said the aim of The Five Foundation is to get FGM further up the global agenda and raise funds for grassroots organisations working to end the practice that 200-million women alive now have undergone.

The UN says the global prevalence of FGM has fallen one-quarter since 2000 due to grassroots work but this is not keeping up with population growth so number are rising.

Ali said she is confident the world could end FGM.

“In my family FGM has stopped with my nieces not being cut. That is what the end of FGM looks like,” said Ali, who ran — unsuccessfully — for a seat in Britain’s 2017 general election.

She ruled out running again for office to achieve her aims.

“I was heckled and abused. It was a really horrible experience so I won’t repeat that again,” she said.

Thomson Reuters Foundation