OUR LADY: LEYLA HUSSEIN
Photos by Susannah Baker-Smith
Text by Laura McLaws Helms
Through our photographer friend Susannah Baker-Smith we were recently introduced to the remarkable Leyla Hussein, a psychotherapist and social activist whose work focuses on both healing women who are victims of FGM (female genital mutilation) and on preventing it for future generations. Born in Somalia, Leyla underwent FGM as a child; after the birth of her own daughter seventeen years ago, she began to research and campaign against FGM in order to prevent her children from enduring the same trauma she and many other women had.
Though FGM is now banned in most countries where it is prevalent, these laws are poorly enforced and UNICEF estimated in 2016 that 200 million women living today in 30 countries have undergone the procedures. Tirelessly Leyla has strived for the last seventeen years to do whatever she can to change thinking around FGM in Africa and in African communities. In 2010, she co-founded Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organization established to help young women and girls, with a focus on providing education and raising awareness on FGM. She is the Chief Executive of Hawa's Haven, a coalition of Somali women campaigners and community activists that aims to raise awareness on gender-based violence, and she also runs the support therapy group Dahlia Project. Leyla is the global ambassador for The Girl Generation, a social change communication programme aiming to end FGM in one generation, currently working in 10 African countries. As a health professional, Hussein works closely with the Metropolitan Police through its Project Azure. Due to the large scope of her work Leyla has received many death threats yet also much recognition and support.
She is one of five protagonists in the documentary #Female Pleasure, which “talks about sexuality in the 21st century from a woman’s perspective and about ongoing repression of women in patriarchal structures.” Directed by Swiss filmmaker Barbara Miller, it premiered at Locarno Festival 2018.
Last week Leyla was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to tackling female gender mutilation and gender equality. She shared with us below her statement upon receiving an OBE:
Receiving this award is a great honour but, after recovering from the shock of the official notification, I had to think hard about whether to accept. Like most activists my work is not about personal recognition. I am driven by wanting a more just world and for all girls and women to be free from oppression.
I was born in Somalia and I am proud of my African heritage. The deep and long-lasting harm of colonialism runs through my family history and my work in many countries in Africa. Accepting an Order of the British Empire is not something I do lightly. I am also proud to be British and that this country welcomed my parents when they arrived as refugees fleeing war and looking for a safe place to raise their family. London is now home for three generations of my family and we are all thriving. Therefore, above all I accept this award in honour of my parents and their dreams for their children. Along with my daughter whose arrival led to my activism, they are the inspiration for all that I am being recognised for.
Living in the UK is also important to me as it is a democracy which values free speech. I am receiving this award even though I speak out and challenge those in authority to make changes. This is very precious as we live in a time when too many human rights activists are persecuted, imprisoned and murdered by their own governments.
Every day, foremost in my mind are the 200 million plus girls and women who are living with female genital mutilation (FGM) and all those who died because of it. I began my work against FGM as a new mother, asking questions to understand what had happened to me as a young girl and to make sure I was able to protect my daughter. In the years since I have learnt so much about the devastating trauma caused by FGM through my work as a psychotherapist helping women rebuild their lives and as a campaigner working alongside many others to protect girls at risk.
Seventeen years ago, when I began asking my questions, I was one of many scared young women whose pain from FGM was buried deep inside and there was little or no help for us. Now we have a growing global movement to end FGM and increasingly we are getting support for specialist services for survivors. I never forget and I am forever grateful to the many incredible women who have made it possible for me to now speak out about FGM and I feel privileged to build on their work. There are many who have done vital work for decades so I would like to pay tribute to them all and especially to Efua Dorkenoo, Agnes Pareiyo, Shamis Dirie and Jennifer Bourne who have inspired and mentored me.
In my clinic we meet the women whose lives have been cruelly affected by FGM and we hear their heart-breaking stories. We cannot undo the harm done to these women, but we can support them, and we must stop the next generation from the suffering the same fate. There is much work to be done and it can seem a daunting task. I share this special recognition with everyone who is part of the global movement to end FGM and I hope it inspires us all to go on to achieve our goal of a world free from FGM.