Naimah Hassan – Generation of Hope
Written by Stella Nicholls
Photos supplied by Naimah Hassan and TedxExeter
“As campaigners, we are all here to serve the next generation, making sure that their lives are better than ours” Naimah Hassan
They rise. Advancing across the plateaus and plains of Africa, resiliently united to bring a message of hope. Rising to take up the challenge, to swim upstream against tenuous traditions practised for thousands of years. A heartfelt mission, raising awareness through the education and empowerment of communities. Bringing young girls out of the darkness and into the light.
These are the women making a difference; the women on the frontline. Activists who tirelessly campaign to ensure that the influential voices of religious traditional leaders and survivors are heard. Grasping at every media opportunity to get their message out and united in the hope that it will be taken to heart. A message that will end FGM (female genital mutilation) for good.
In April, Naimah Hassan, (programme director for the Global Media Campaign to End FGM) spoke at TEDxExeter to a packed venue. The audience had gathered to hear exceptional speakers who are changing the world through their work and ideas. Describing the opportunity as hitting ‘the big time’ for the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, she referred to the experience as ‘one of the most memorable and proud moments of her life’, and she certainly delivered an inspirational talk, moving the audience to want to make a difference and contribute in some way.
Llew Nicholls was one such audience member, and after Naimah’s talk, he asked her how we, at Grow, could help. The answer was simple, and so we join TEDxExeter and many other media organisations in raising awareness of FGM in a quest to bring it to an end.
Naimah, who loves to travel, was born in Somaliland but grew up in Cardiff where she attended school and university. It was around a year after graduating that she felt the urge to connect with her roots. She returned to Somaliland in 2007, and it was at this point that she became involved in several different charities which concentrated on women’s and girls’ issues. With a passion for helping women who may be struggling against things like inequality, she led programmes related to conflict resolution, peacebuilding and women in political participation.
Naimah’s experiences in East Africa were life-changing and paved the way for her to be offered a new role. After returning to the UK in 2013 (and having completed her Master’s Degree in International Development and Reduction at Birmingham University), Naimah was ready for a challenge.
She applied for the position of Programme Manager, a role advertised by The Guardian Newspaper who were running Global Media Campaigns, but says she wasn’t aware of exactly what the campaign would be focussing on. When they revealed that it was a campaign to end FGM, she knew that it was meant to be. Her experience working with East African women and her own heritage meant that she was the ideal candidate for the job. Since then, she has been leading initiatives and policies related to media communication within the Global Media Campaign (GMC). She has also been involved in giving the power back to the people on the ground; giving them the platforms and tools to tell and create their own stories. The power to save lives.
As far as the campaign goes, there has been a shift in the understanding of who the key messengers are, and in realising which voices people respond to the most. Initially, the media campaign was very much activist-focussed. Naimah says,
“Brilliantly, the women and girls we train, quickly became influential campaigners. It’s different in different regions and different countries but the activists are perfectly positioned to be able to agree on a message and get those influential voices out on the radio, television and social media. As the campaign grew so did the learning and the team working across Kenya, The Gambia and Nigeria, realised that as well as training the potential media activists, they needed to inform journalists, media platforms and later medics and religious and traditional leaders”.
The biggest change in approach, more recently, has been in harnessing the reach and influence of religious leaders; educating people on the fact that FGM is not a part of any religious belief system. This has had a huge impact and is crucial, especially where the practice of FGM is believed to be religious. Naimah said,
“People tend to be very faithful to their religion, it is part of their cultural identity; the voice of religious leaders telling people that FGM is not a part of their religion is very important”.
Identifying the need to have religious leaders and activists as well as journalists together in a room, cultivating the messages going out and analysing the type of programming that needed to be aired, was a crucial moment.
In terms of tracking the impact of the campaign, an assessment was carried out in one small rural area of Eastern Kenya called Tana River. A cohort study was carried out over the course of six weeks, which consisted of the daily broadcasting of religious messages, activists and medics, as well as legal messaging (FGM is illegal in Kenya). The results were more than encouraging showing that one in four (of a population of two or three million) of the listeners found FGM unnecessary, and that was largely due to religious leaders speaking out against it on the radio and television. The broadcasts had all been facilitated by GMC graduates.
During her TEDxExeter talk, Naimah emphasised that FGM is not exclusive to a specific religion and is carried out across Muslim and Christian communities. In the UK, although FGM is illegal, young girls are sometimes ‘sent home’ to undergo the procedure and she urged people to be aware and more informed on child safeguarding. But also, she expressed the need to handle the situation with sensitivity and to be careful not to jump to conclusions and ‘demonise’ families who may just be going home for a holiday. She said,
“There needs to be an element of vigilance and at the same time an element of patience and an understanding of how to better support the girls and how to protect them”.
Naimah wanted to impress on us all that FGM is not only an African problem. In fact, she said that as recently as the 1800s, FGM was common practice, right here in the UK, to curb a woman’s sexuality. No girl or woman should ever have to fear for their safety, no matter where they live. It’s a global issue and we live in a small world.
Naimah also wanted people to be aware of the levels of complexity that exist in the areas where FGM is carried out. She said,
“Yes, it’s a complex issue, it’s to do with a woman’s sexuality and inequality – it’s all of that but it’s also important to remember that some women who have gone through this are also thriving; women who have risen and overcome, who are doctors and lawyers”.
“Let’s uplift each other and remember there are lots of survivors who are here, doing incredible work”.
These are the women who inspire Naimah every day to keep going and she says that they are strong, they are precious, and we should be honouring them. They have succeeded and made something amazing of their lives, against all odds.
She wanted to leave people feeling encouraged and hopeful; that we have a role to play.
“Everyone can do something, we just need to identify what that something is: whether financial, signing a petition, or simply educating ourselves by going online to read up about the atrocities that happen in some parts of the world, including in the UK”.
She was touched by the words of young boys and girls coming up to her at the end of the talk, visibly moved by what they had heard. They wanted to do something, they wanted to make a difference and she was really encouraged by that. She said that a relatively small donation could enable the purchasing of two hours of airtime and those two hours could protect a girl’s life.
There are many incredible women, Naimah included, who are forging their way forward to protect the next generation. Naimah said she is inspired by so many of them, people like Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian women’s rights activist, who also happens to be a dear friend to her. Naimah loves to see how she has prospered on her journey.
The Global Media Campaign to End FGM doesn’t want to exist as an organisation indefinitely: by the very nature of what they stand for, they don’t want to be around forever. Their hope is that by 2030, within a generation, FGM will have come to an end.
Let’s join them in making that a reality. Let’s save our girls – our sisters and our daughters. This is our world. We are in this together. In the spirit of Ubuntu (an African philosophy) – when one of us hurts, we all hurt.
If you would like to find out how you can help, or to donate funds, visit: www.globalmediacampaign.org
You can also play a part in helping to end FGM by watching and sharing Naimah’s TEDxExeter talk on You Tube, making sure that it’s seen as widely as possible.