I'm here in Dakar, Senegal. It's a long way from London, Davos and Ethiopia. I'm seeing different things, learning so much and marvelling constantly at the changes that are happening here on the ground and in communities.
As a "passionate advocate" to end female genital cutting, my story is a pedestrian one, mimicked (I'm sure) across the Western world. A lifetime of mortgage enslavement, corporate kowtowing and daily commuting on packed London Tube trains led me to rethink. My second life began about two years ago, when I headed out to Ethiopia to volunteer. It was in Addis Ababa that my eyes opened in wonder as I viewed the lives of women and girls around me. How had they been born into this life of hard work, of carrying loads far too heavy for their backs, of little schooling?
It got worse when I heard about female genital cutting, its scale and impacts. The shock I felt was tangible. On a trip to Lalibela, an ancient relic of a holy city in northern Ethiopia, I met two little girls who have stayed in my mind's eye throughout this journey. I wanted to talk with their parents, their community, beg for them not to be cut. But I knew I had no agency, no right, no legitimacy to intervene in anyone's culture in such a stumbling, righteous way.
Back in London, I volunteered with Forward learning about a better way to engage with communities. Rather incongruously, I appeared on the plinth in Trafalgar Square and exhorted crowds not to look away from this very complex, heart-rending issue.
Then everything shifted. I won a YouTube competition to attend Davos and within three days, I was shaking hands with President Clinton, Melinda Gates and Paulo Coelho. An impassioned debate with Nick Kristof, UNICEF, Amnesty International and others led to some saying that female genital cutting could end in the next five years. I couldn't believe it and showed my skepticism openly for who was really championing the end of this difficult issue? It seemed the world was choosing to look away.
Then things shifted again. An introduction to Molly Melching of Tostan, who sat and talked with me for hours, shared her learning and asked me questions. A pivotal point was when she looked at my "model" for my planned NGO -- "End FGM Now" -- and gently said, "Where do you think change happens, Julia?" Looking back, I remember talking excitedly through the strategy: all the big levers of change, the UN, Africa Union, governments, academics, legislation, talking about influencing. All very valid. Melching's response was:
"For me, change is about communities. Communities are at their center.They are what matters. Why don't you come and visit? Come and see what really happens in the villages.
And so now, six months later, I'm here in Senegal to witness and learn. Melching was right: I'm simply astounded by what I see. Put very simply, change is happening. Communities are dancing to end female genital cutting. If I hadn't seen it for myself, I would not have believed it.
The change that is sweeping west Africa is being catalyzed by an extremely respectful and pragmatic approach, solidly based in human rights exploration and delivered through tangible applications of that learning.
When a community chooses to engage with Tostan, they set up their own small management committee. Then, a local facilitator will work with them (in their language) to discuss and outline human rights, democracy, health, hygiene, literacy, numeracy and management. The program, which runs for three years, has attendees who are women and men (everyone is welcome).
Interestingly, it was never meant to end female genital cutting, which shows the power of its approach (what's enacted by a community is what's a priority for them). In this way, the results are sustainable and crucially owned. It also means that changes far wider than just female genital cutting are happening -- child marriage is also abandoned, campaigns promoting the importance of vaccinations are adopted, improved pre- and post-natal care is delivered -- and all of this often with women in key decision-making and leadership roles for the first time.
So, here's the question: Communities are changing, shifting, abandoning. The very people who have perpetuated the practice of female genital cutting for centuries are choosing to change. This community-led, respectful, democratic process is having a phenomenal impact. More than 5,000 communities in six countries have chosen to end female genital cutting. How can such change be supported? How can we shine the light on these communities and stand with them? After all, these are the people who really bear the consequences of any actions.
I remember presenting at an event in Europe earlier in the year. A bombastic gentleman came up to me afterwards and spluttered: "You'll never succeed in what you're doing. You're trying to turn the tide. No one can turn the tide." He was right. No one person, no one family can swim against the tide. But last weekend, I saw over a thousand people from 24 communities -- men, children, elders, religious leaders, government officials -- all come together in Basse, the Gambia. Former cutters danced, women sang, people celebrated. The representative from the Women's Bureau sat next to me, leaned over and said: "Can you really believe this? Can you see what's happening here?" "Yes," I said, thrilled. "I'm witnessing the end of female genital cutting. The tide is turning."