Photo courtesy 28 Too Many
(Please note that this story mentions Female Genital Mutilation and rape)
The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is still widespread in 28 African nations. For Ann-Marie Wilson, this was 28 nations too many, and she decided to do something about it.
Ann-Marie Wilson is experienced at speaking her mind. She has been doing so for over a decade with her anti-FGM charity, 28 Too Many – from Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour to speaking at the UN and even an impromptu audience with the Pope. However, when she paid a visit to a Maasai chief in the Masai Mara, she admits she felt thoroughly out of her depth.
‘We'd only just arrived, and there were a bunch of women, elders and wives of elders sitting under one acacia tree, and the men under another, and they all looked very stern.’ FGM remains an important rite of passage and around three quarters of Maasai girls are still subjected to it. Ann-Marie knew that, if she caused offence here, she and her colleagues could be driven off Maasai land.
Seize the moment
‘I said to my Maasai colleague "If I put my foot in it and say the wrong thing, just don't translate it and then I'll be protected.”’ However after only a few words, it became clear that the chief spoke perfect English. Ann-Marie knew that she had one chance to be heard.‘I said to him "Look I really don't know if I've got permission to say this." I knew that you weren’t supposed to discuss FGM – it just wasn’t acceptable. The chief got his big staff and banged it on the floor saying "You have permission!"’
I knew that if I could just do it for one more girl, that would be enough. Of course now I've seen dozens of girls – thousands actually – helped.Ann-Marie Wilson
Even more remarkably, he told Ann-Marie ‘We need you, we need your help, please come and walk with me across the land.’ They walked across the burning hot Masai Mara for two and a half hours as the chief opened up to her about his frustrations at the damage FGM was doing, and how he wished he could do more.
Never the same
It’s one of many small triumphs she has experienced in her years organising and speaking up against FGM. Her earlier calling into the work was a tragic and painful one. ‘I was working in aid work from 2001 with a Christian charity called Medair. While I was in Darfur, Western Sudan, I met a little girl who'd gone through FGM aged five, and was raped at 10 as the militia came through her village. She was actually left for dead, but we found her at seven months pregnant and gave her a safe delivery.
’That one encounter changed everything; ‘I think I literally heard that audible call of God when I cried out to him asking "Who will speak out for girls like this?". I felt him say "You will."’
Preparing for what she saw as her life’s work involved studies in gender, anthropology and religion as well as practicing in medicine in Africa and Asia. She studied widely, as the reasons for FGM persisting in Africa are many and complex – 28 Too Many refers to the number of nations where the practice continues in the continent.
Not doing it ‘by the book’
Religion is often cited a primary cause, though Ann-Marie disputes any link with the Abrahamic faiths; ‘It's actually from pre-Islamic and pre-Christian days,’ she says. ‘It's not in any holy book, so there's no requirement for it. However, some women who haven't had an education are told by imams that it is a requirement of Islam. I've even met imams who say "I know FGM is wrong, but if I say this to people now, they will ask me why I let it happen to their daughters?” So it's very difficult; you have to change a whole community to make a change happen.’
Rather than oversee a project in one part of Africa, she has based herself in the UK. She sees her job as a coordinator; helping to build, equip and connect a network of practitioners, working all over Africa – each trying to end FGM in their own regions, as well as advocating internationally for its abolition.
‘I've made a huge amount of personal sacrifice for this work, including the chance of marriage, and my own children, because I felt this is what I was meant to do. And I feel it's a bit like that Esther moment “for such a time as this”, bizarre as it may seem.’
‘After I came across that little girl in Darfur, I knew it was too late for me to help her any more, but I knew that if I could just do it for one more girl, that would be enough. Of course now I've seen dozens of girls – thousands actually – helped.
‘My life was all quite ordinary really, I was a girl that left school at 16 to go work in a bank. This is not the path I expected, but I think it just shows that with God all things are possible.’
Ann-Marie Wilson is an Inspired Individual. The Inspired Individuals programme exists to identify, develop and connect new leaders who are aspiring to live like Jesus and whose dreams have the potential to transform some of the most needy places and people in our world.
Learn more about 28 Too Many: http://28toomany.org
Pray for this work:
Pray that more and more groups will rise up to challenge FGM around Africa. Ask God that 28 Too Many will be able to resource them to make a bigger impact.
Pray that many more women will learn that FGM isn’t a requirement of their religion and that they will be able to say ‘no’ to it on behalf of their daughters.
Pray for Ann-Marie’s vision to see FGM wiped out across the world, that it can become a reality in the next few years.