A landmark law in Sudan completes a circle for CMS mission partner and anti-FGM campaigner Ann-Marie Wilson
Just a few weeks ago Sudan’s transitional government criminalised female genital mutilation, which will now be punishable by three years in prison. It was a landmark for the country with one of the highest rates of cutting in Africa.
The move has been widely welcomed, in particular by women’s movements in the country and around the world.
Where it all began
It was also a personal pinnacle for Ann-Marie Wilson, who joined Church Mission Society as a mission partner 10 years ago, on a mission to fight FGM. Sudan was where it all began.
“I gave up my day job as an HR person working in London in 2005 having met a little girl called Fatima who was cut at five years old, as is the culture in Sudan,” Ann-Marie explains. “I met her when she was a 10 year old and she was pregnant, seven months pregnant, having been raped by armed militia, and we gave her a safe delivery at the Christian medical hospital I was working with in west Darfur.
“It was then that I called out to God and said ‘Who will end this for other girls?’ And I heard God say, ‘You will.’ I had never heard the audible voice of God. And I thought, that’s crazy.
“If I was God’s HR manager, I’d be going: ‘No, she doesn’t meet the person spec. She’s not black. She’s not a midwife. She’s not a doctor. She’s doesn’t speak Swahili, Arabic or anything suitable.’
“But, God being God chooses the most unsuitable, I feel. And if you’re willing to go then he will take you with him on that journey.”
The Google of FGM
The journey led Ann-Marie to set up the research and campaigning charity 28 Too Many. Registered as a charity in 2012, 28 Too Many has compiled detailed country profiles on FGM for all 28 countries where FGM was practised (the number became 29 when South Sudan achieved independence).
“Over time we’ve built a reputation and we are a little bit like the Google of FGM. People go to our reports, they trust the reports: DFID and the home office, and we brief the Met police every fortnight.”
In 2018, in an award-winning partnership with an international team of pro bono lawyers, supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, 28 Too Many also produced reports on the law and FGM in each of these countries.
These reports were important resources both for Sudanese activists and the lawyers working for Sudan’s transitional government, who also made use of the model law banning FGM that 28 Too Many published earlier this year.
“We’ve worked behind the scenes helping them, making sure they had the right information,” says Ann-Marie.
But the law is only one step: “Without a law, you will never actually end something. But it’s going to be changing the minds of the community that view the traditional practice as necessary to have their daughter married off. So that’s going to be the one that’s difficult.
Uniting influencers and activists
“We do know with a social norm, it’s not going to change unless communities are involved in the process as well. So we have we produced a guide to designing culturally sensitive community programmes, which again is being well-received.”
28 Too Many’s policy has always been a two way approach: top-down, working with the UN and high level influencers, and bottom-up, providing resources to grassroots campaigners in each country.
The challenge is enormous. 28 Too Many’s report found that 87 per cent of women between 15 and 49 in Sudan had been cut, while only half of them think FGM should be stopped. “It would just be a cultural practice,” says Ann-Marie. “They wouldn’t even know what it’s called. It’s something that women keep secret and they don’t even know what’s happened to them often until they come to having a baby and then wonder why things aren’t normal.”
Many strands of society have to come together to halt the practice, from education to the legal system, to the economy – providing alternative income for the women who earn money from cutting.
But it can be done, especially once a country has a national strategy against FGM. “We know that that’s happened in Kenya: Kenya has had a hundred prosecutions and has only had the law in place less than 10 years, I think.”
Ann-Marie is confident that 28 Too Many will reach its goal of seeing a 10 per cent reduction in FGM in 10 countries in its first 10 years as a charity.
Now, with Sudan’s law introduced 15 years after she sat and listened to young women’s stories in the internally displaced people’s camps of West Darfur, Ann-Marie feels that her personal story is complete.
“The girl I met now has a law to protect her grandchildren – in my lifetime. And that’s very special for me.”