Church elder Ailsa voices her passion for charity Feed the Minds

The BBC’s popular prime-time drama Call the Midwife deserves praise for its courage in tackling the thorny topic of female genital mutilation in an episode which will air on BBC 1 at 8 pm tonight-- Sunday 26 Feb.

The Church of Scotland Guild is working to end this painful and dangerous practice, which affects 200 million women worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, through a partnership with the ecumenical charity Feed the Minds, which is working with communities in Kenya to stop FGM. The Guild chose to support Feed the Minds in 2015 and has raised more than £62,000 for the project so far.

Church elder Ailsa Henderson, a volunteer speaker for Feed the Minds, told us why she is so passionate about ending FGM and how all of us can help.

Women and child in Kenya

“The first time I heard about FGM was in the 1980s when I was working for Oxfam as a fundraiser and campaigner. Back then it was known as female circumcision and it came up in relation to our health work as women who had endured “the cut” were having serious problems with childbirth.

Ailsa Henderson
Ailsa Henderson

But at that time even helping women with family planning was highly controversial and FGM was very much in the background.

“I remember thinking what a terrible thing it was, but I had no idea how it could be stopped. Looking back my time at Oxfam and later at Christian Aid, I must have met many women who had suffered from being cut, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“I feel passionately about the double injustice suffered by these girls: the pain they suffer and the tragedy of their lost potential—as their education ends when they are cut,. We all lose the potential of what those girls might have become and what they could have contributed.

“That’s why I am so glad The Guild has partnered with Feed the Minds. Their project in Kenya works with local partners who in turn work in partnership with local communities to raise awareness and educate everybody about the practice of FGM and why it needs to be stopped.

FGM education in Kenya

Banned but still practiced

“The Kenyan Government banned FGM in 2011 and of course that was a crucial step and very important. That law came about through the work of a woman MP, Denitah Ghati who had herself refused to be cut 20 or so years ago. She comes from the area where the Guild / FTM project is now happening.

“But if we want to end the practice for good it is equally crucial to change attitudes and minds of the people in the communities who see this as a significant part of their culture.

“The people themselves have to be supported to make this change so they end this practice not because they are forced to but because they understand and they want to.

“I did the speaker’s training in summer 2015 and since then I have been visiting different Guild groups to talk about it.

“People should learn about it and understand it because it is one of the most serious human rights issues affecting women in many different countries —including girls and women in Scotland.

“Apart from the horror of the horrendous physical pain that girls are put through, there are the inevitable dangers of infection and even death. Then there are the inevitable future problems the girls face as they grow up, get married, have sex and give birth to children.

Woman and child in Kenya

Lost potential

“For the communities involved, the cutting season is a time of great celebration and a rite of passage where the girls become women. Through it they are seen to be ‘good’ and ‘pure’ and therefore sought after as wives, and can often be married off very soon afterwards.

“They will also get a good dowry which will help the family income and pay for the education of the sons which is deemed most important. What they will not get, is the chance to be educated and to develop their potential.

“The Elders of the community who are all men and the women who carry out the ‘operation’ have to be persuaded that there are better, safer ways for this transition to be marked that would recognise the rights of the young women and value them for who they are.

“Yet still today girls are dropping out of education to become wives and mothers. They lose their opportunity to be educated, to have jobs and to take on a different role in life. All of that potential is completely lost.

“And if a girl refuses or her family refuses to put her through FGM the family could be harassed and ostracized. Sometimes girls themselves have to ‘run away’ and even their families may have to leave their land, and their homes and move away from their villages.

“It is so encouraging to hear that since the project began there are growing numbers of girls who are refusing to be cut and their families and friends are supporting them - men and women. They are speaking out and bringing change in Kenya now and if this project can be successful, it can be replicated across Kenya and we will have a real chance to stop FGM for good.

Two young women from Kenya

Guild members speak out

“I have been so impressed by the women in The Guild who have signed on to support this project. Guild members are strong women and men and if they believe in something they will speak up and put their efforts and their support behind it.

“What gives me hope is the growing numbers of girls who are refusing to be cut and the families and the young men who are supporting them. They are speaking out and bringing change in Kenya now.

“In fact we wouldn’t be taking about this today if not for the refusers and the campaigners who have been working away quietly in the background for the last 30 years.

“We wouldn’t be talking about this today if it had not been for the strong girls like Denitah Ghati who refused decades ago and the campaigners who have been working away quietly in the background for the last 30 years.

Being the change

“So what we can all do now is build on that and become aware of what is happening and try to understand it without judging. We can do that through a ground-breaking and inspiring project such as this and we can help, as the Guild is doing, by donating to it and supporting it financially.

“We can all become part of a really powerful movement for change simply by working together.

“I hope you will all join me in continuing to supporting The Guild’s partnership with Feed the Minds.”

Find out more about the Guild's work with Feed the Minds or book a speaker for your event .

See more on how Feed the Minds is working to end FGM in Kenya