Breaking taboos through courage and open dialogue


Susan Place Everhart


To break a taboo takes great courage. This was the theme of a ‘Breaking Taboos’ panel discussion at the Trust Conference 2017, organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation in London this week, where a group of courageous individuals told their stories to a highly engaged audience.

The panel included Fatuma Abdulkadir Adan, who is a lawyer, Peace Ambassador and campaigner against the harmful practice of female genital cutting (FGC).

FGC is the partial or complete removal of a girl’s external genitals, a long-held cultural tradition and social norm held in place by communities in over 30 countries, impacting at least 200 million women and girls worldwide. It contravenes human, child and women’s rights, and can lead to lasting physical, emotional and psychological impacts for those affected.

I was struck by Fatuma’s story of how, as a girl growing up in Northern Kenya where many of her peers would be married from as young an age as 13, Fatuma’s parents encouraged her to continue her education through university.

While she pursued her educational goals, Fatuma told the audience of another dream – to play football in a community where it was taboo for a girl to even kick a ball.

This dream culminated in the founding of HODI, The Horn of Africa Development Initiative, which is now breaking one taboo with another; bringing girls together to play football while discussing issues that matter to them most – and specifically focusing on the taboo of FGC.

Fatuma’s organisation brings girls together to play football after which they sit down and talk. Over time other community members are invited to these conversations including mothers, fathers, and imams.

This type of open community dialogue is a vital element of breaking the taboo of FGC, and a key step towards ending this harmful social norm.

Without open dialogue at all levels around why a harmful practice such as FGC continues, change would not be possible.

Orchid Project, the UK-based NGO where I serve as Chief Operating Officer, advocates for governments to prioritise ending FGC and we partner with grassroots organisations addressing FGC in practicing countries. Our partners in Kenya, Senegal and India pursue community-led, non-judgemental approaches to ending FGC.

From Orchid Project’s experience working in partnership, we have seen that for a community to abandon FGC, there must be a collective process of deliberation, often followed by a public declaration to end the practice.

Much like Fatuma and her work with HODI, our partners are ending FGC by holding open dialogues to break this taboo. Fatuma’s personal story – and her work on female genital cutting through football – is an inspirational example of how community-led approaches and open dialogue can culminate in positive change.

While this fantastic work is ongoing, 3.6 million girls globally are currently at risk of being cut within the next year. It is essential that communities, governments, decision makers, NGOs and civil society work together to bring these figures down to zero.

Fatuma and HODI, along with Orchid Project, our partners and the communities in which they work, are making great strides in ending FGC by breaking the silence around this practice, through the vital element of open community dialogue.

We believe these sustained efforts mean the practice can, and will, come to an end within a generation, so girls and women can live in a world free from FGC.

Susan Place Everhart is the Chief Operating Officer of Orchid Project, based in London.

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