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Fighting like a girl

Ann-Marie Wilson - fighting against FGM

It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone the ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM), and current trends indicate that each year, approximately three million girls under the age of 15 are added to these statistics. As founder and leader of 28 Too Many, Ann-Marie Wilson has dedicated her life to ending FGM. Church Mission Society's newspaper, The Call, talked to her.

A few years ago, it seemed like hardly anyone was talking about female genital mutilation (FGM). Today it feels high on the public agenda and great strides are being made. How has this happened?

Yes, it’s been 11 years since I first started fighting FGM. Since then there have been huge steps forward. Some of this has been down to lobbying the government.

Another thing that’s had an impact is that survivors of FGM used to suppress their stories for fear of persecution; there might also have been a level of shame. Now survivors are speaking out together and supporting each other. I’ve listened to 3,000 girls’ stories and they all say that they 100 per cent wish that FGM hadn’t happened to them.

The media has also played a part; the Guardian and Evening Standard have both featured our work. I was recently interviewed for Good Housekeeping; not long ago it would have been unheard of for them to pick up a story like this.

Ann-Marie in The Gambia
Ann-Marie in The Gambia, where she spoke to schools, leaders, children and young people at Kids Come First Foundation.

28 Too Many (the charity I founded and lead) certainly aren’t the only ones working to raise the issue, but we have been on the case. Since 2012, we have done 11 country reports (with extensive research on the prevalence of FGM in each country); we plan to do 28 (one for each country in Africa where FGM is practised). These have had global impact and have pushed the UK government to act. Before, they thought FGM was something that just happened over in Africa; now they know it happens here too in the diaspora. We’ve helped put codes of practice in the NHS for FGM; we’ve helped advocate for mandatory reporting of FGM; we’ve done prevention work in schools.

In the last 11 years I’ve probably spoken to over half a million people in different contexts about FGM. My aim is that every time I talk to someone, they will take some action, be that praying, giving or being an activist. We’ve got a movement behind us.

28 Too Many is going into its seventh year. What’s been the biggest surprise?

For a tiny charity, we’ve been able to punch above our weight – to have gone to the UN in 2012, to have been instrumental in contributing to ending FGM at a global level, to have been chosen as the UK representative with the UN on FGM and harmful traditional practices...it’s extraordinary. And while accolades aren’t everything, to have won a global advertising award for our FGM awareness campaign last year, to be picked by Random House publishers to contribute to one of their projects – these are things I didn’t expect to happen.

I’m pleased that we are seen as a safe pair of hands in the sector; we’ve stayed in from day one, we have no particular political affiliation and we have faith in our midst – we work with people of any faith and none.

We are currently working with a pro bono body of lawyers called Trust Law. Lawyers from six top law firms around the world are looking at case law and FGM in 28 countries. Because if you don’t have an anti-FGM law, you’ll never stop FGM. That’s why we were so glad that after we were in The Gambia last summer, the law changed. In Mali, where we were told that the law would never change due to political reasons, we have made progress, getting 30 charities and NGOs together to address this issue. This is all way beyond our initial remit.

What are you proudest of?

I’m proud of the fact that 11 years ago, a 10-year-old girl walked into my life while I was volunteering at a refugee camp in West Darfur; she’d had FGM and then been raped and become pregnant and even though we couldn’t do much for her (apart from giving her and her baby a safe delivery) I began to worry about other girls.

I’m proud that instead of just being worried or traumatised or tearful, I was moved to action. I gave up my job as an HR consultant, my regular income and comfortable life in the West to do something.

Ann-Marie and leaders at the Girl Summit 2014
Presenting an inter-faith pledge against FGM signed by 350 faith leaders at the inaugural Girl Summit hosted by then Prime Minister David Cameron

Lots of people think FGM is a bad thing. What’s the difference between thinking that and having a calling to end it?

I think without a calling you’ll give up when the going gets tough. I feel like a cowardly Jonah. Jonah heard God and ran. I’m too cowardly to do that because I think God will get you anyway. I didn’t want to run from this calling and get called back in an undignified way; I think it’s easier to say yes to God the first time. And he has shown himself faithful.

Our board is mostly Christian; most of our staff have faith and I feel it is God who has enabled people to follow this call, whether employees, volunteers, donors or churches. You know, this calling isn’t exactly a pleasant issue and still, churches want to link with us and pastors have trusted me speak to their congregations on a subject which could frighten away the less robust.

How did you become part of Church Mission Society and what difference has this made for you?

In the early 1990s, maybe even before that, I felt called to work with the most disadvantaged in society. Of course there are disadvantaged people in many areas; the issues are bottomless. I was really impacted by the Romanian children’s crisis in the late 1990s. I said to God, “When the next big thing happens I will go.”

I took a sabbatical in last three months of 1999 to consider, “What am I going to take on in the next millennium and what am I going to let go of?” I was a fairly new Christian with this fairly unrefined calling. I went with YWAM to DTS (Discipleship Training School) and later did a degree and spent time overseas and felt my call being honed down.

At the time, no mission agency was doing anti-FGM work, so I applied to anyone doing education or medical work in Africa. CMS was the one that most embraced this calling and who had the most connections in countries I was going to focus on.

Because it is often mistakenly thought that FGM is performed for religious reasons (though it pre-dates the major faiths and is not required by any religion) I’ve always felt that the way to crack the problem of FGM was through faith bodies at top level (archbishops, the Pope, imams and their relevant mission agencies) as well as the UN-type bodies. I’ve met the Archbishop of Canterbury and I’ve briefly met the Pope and I keep trying to get top people to embrace this, including First Ladies of a number of countries.

I try to lobby at top level as well as the grassroots level to give the grassroots the resources to do their job.


Speaking on Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4

Going with CMS has provided a network; I have linked with other pioneers through the pioneer training which has been invaluable to me, to not feel like a complete misfit in society. I’m in with a group of misfits, which is reassuring!

Through spending time with CMS-Africa I have a network of people who understand what I do and who can take the work further. And having a movement of people who pray and give is reassuring. I don’t think I’d be here today if it weren’t for prayers that have kept me alive, safe, encouraged and heartened.

And the way churches have got behind me…I don’t earn a salary from 28 Too Many; I live by faith on a stipend and that’s difficult in London. I feel God meets my needs and that gives me confidence. And whether it’s the support of the CMS communications department or the church links department or the finance team or my African colleagues, I feel uplifted.

I’m planning to be licensed as a lay pioneer in Edmonton this year. This will enable me to work across dioceses and that’s thanks to CMS.

How have you kept going, especially while receiving treatment for cancer?

You never expect cancer to happen to you. I have great love and support from my church and I have great medical support. I want to carry on working so it’s a matter of asking what can I do and what can only I do?

I attend European global events as I can’t travel to Africa at the moment – others go for me. I think it’s similar to any entrepreneur who has to face founder’s syndrome – you’ve birthed something and you do everything and know everything and then you have to let go and be more of an executive director. I have an amazing deputy colleague holding things together organisationally and an amazing staff team and volunteer base.

It’s a little strange to step back, but it enables me to do things I need to do.

Ann-Marie protesting against violence against women
Marching on International Women's Day in 2010.

Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, what do you think God’s dreams are for women in the 21st century?

Violence against women has no place in a civilised society. We should value equality of women in pay, status and potential, and meet women’s health and education rights. If women had their education rights met there wouldn’t be FGM. Girls who have education don’t tend to practise FGM to the same extent.

Usually on International Women’s Day I do a walk along the South Bank in London, called In Her Footsteps, which is re-walking the suffragette walk. I do feel a bit like a modern suffragette, fighting for the rights of people who can’t fight for their own rights.

If you could say just one thing to our readers, what would it be?

Everyone can take some action. FGM happens across all society, in the UK and in diaspora communities across Europe, in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. I’d like people to be aware of FGM in their community, to lobby their local MPs, to get health passport information sheets placed in their local GP surgery, to talk to teachers, nurses and social workers about mandatory reporting (which means everyone who has FGM needs to be reported, not to arrest them, but to make sure they know it’s illegal in the UK and children are protected).

And pray. We are literally kept alive in unsafe countries by prayer. I’d love people to make a prayer chain or fast for health and healing for me and for 28 Too Many. We live on giving. I’d love people to give to my support (churchmissionsociety.org/ annmariewilson). If people want to help there are always opportunities listed at 28toomany.org. There are currently trustee vacancies; we need people to proofread our reports, everyone can get involved.

What does mission mean to you?

To me mission is not an option. It’s a requirement. We are all called to mission. Recently I was in a writing group and someone was late and, when I asked her why, she told me about a girl she knows who is critically ill in hospital. She was going to visit that evening and I asked, “Would you like me to come with you and pray with her?” I spent two hours there, one with the woman who is probably dying and one with her son and husband. None have a faith, yet they were willing to accept prayer and felt comforted. I was glad that I had gone, even though it wasn’t convenient or comfortable.

We are called to be uncomfortable in mission. I don’t always feel comfortable doing what I do. But I do it anyway. And I’m usually not turned away. Mission for me is about God’s heart, Jesus’ heart for the lost and marginalised, people who are in pain. I think Jesus would have eaten with people with FGM. Maybe the woman who was bleeding and reached out for Jesus had FGM.


"Kenya could be the first country where FGM becomes a historic event." - Ann-Marie Wilson on a research visit to the country

I don’t think everyone has to be called to fight FGM but everyone needs to get in touch with what God is calling them to. It’s never too late. People sometimes ask me, how did you know this was your calling? I knew God was calling me to this but I also did things to allow God space to speak and to grow my experience.

Everything in life is useful for work in mission. Nothing in your past is wasted. It doesn’t matter if you zigzag around until you get to what your call is. When you do, it will dictate the direction of your life. My call is like a precious light I carry around and it dictates who I am and what I do 24/7. Everybody I meet when I go to a hospital appointment hears about FGM. People in taxis or on the bus – I don’t ever not talk about it. That’s because I’m passionate about it ending and that’s the only way to do it. When everyone finds their own calling they will do the same. It gives you energy.

Do you think FGM can end in a generation?

Yes definitely, and much more than when I started. At first I thought it would take about 60 years. But I think the pace of change is getting to a tipping point. Kenya could be the first country where FGM becomes a historic event. I do think that with prayer and intercession things could shift in many countries in one generation. If not one, then in three. Definitely within my lifetime.

The Call in Action: LEARN

Some facts about FGM: Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a traditional cultural practice involving the cutting or removal of the external female genitals. It results in pain and emotional and health problems, often life-long. Most FGM takes place in 28 African countries and in some communities in the Middle East and Asia. As a result of immigration and refugee movements FGM can also be found in other countries including most European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Source: 28toomany.org