Big Interview - July August 2011 - Ann-Marie Wilson 28 Too Many - Inspire Awards 2011

Why a former businesswoman is now championing the rights of millions of African women. MANDY PILZ reports

What began for Ann-Marie Wilson 10 years ago as a lone backpacker in Indo-China has ended up in her founding 28 Too Many – an organisation dedicated to serving and equipping the many groups in Africa seeking to put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM).

How did this come about?

“I’d had a good life, working in human resources and running my own business,” says Ann-Marie, “but I felt restless in my spirit.

“I became a Christian on an Alpha course in 1999 and went out to Indo-China backpacking on my own as a brand new believer. That’s how I became aware of the enormous need in life.”

She then worked in leadership and management training for an organisation which operates in war zones and places of natural disaster.

“While working in West Darfur I met an 11-year-old girl – she came into the clinic because she’d been found in the bush, seven months pregnant. Her parents had been killed and she’d been raped at age 10 after fleeing her home which had been burnt and flattened.

“I couldn’t believe that a little girl of 11 was already a mother. As with 99% of girls in that region, she’d been circumcised, but at the time I knew nothing about FGM because in 2004 not that much information on it was available.”

FGM involves the partial or total cutting out of the external parts of the female genitalia. Carried out without anaesthetic, and sometimes using unsterilised blades which can transmit sexually transmitted infections and HIV, the process can lead to further problems such as incontinence, septicaemia and birth complications.

FGM is quite widespread, being practised in 40 countries worldwide, including 28 in Africa.

“FGM so caught my attention that when I returned to the UK I talked to my church and told them what I’d seen,” Ann-Marie continues. “At that time I felt God putting a call to full-time mission on my heart so we talked about what to do next.

“I went on a discipleship training course with YWAM in America then travelled to SE Asia again for four months. There I got a vision on Christmas Eve 2006 which seemed to be pointing me towards my future work: educating women.

“I then signed up for missionary training college and focused my studies on FGM. I did my placement in a Somali refugee camp, working alongside victims of rape, incest and domestic violence.”

Ann-Marie tells the story of Mariam, a Somali girl, who at five years of age was snatched from her bed in the early hours by the village midwife.

“She remembered it very well,” relates Ann-Marie, “ … being pinned down by her mother. She wasn’t allowed to scream and had her mouth covered.

“Then her legs were bound together with rope for three weeks so the wound could heal.

“When I was in Nigeria there was a particularly sad story where one girl who had been through FGM had a baby, got a fistula (an anatomical tear) which caused incontinence and led to a condition called ‘drop foot’.

“Drop foot is caused by nerves which become dissolved by constant exposure to urine – so she was walking with a stick. She couldn’t stand or walk properly.

“She had three operations to correct her fistula and her anatomy was so bizarre I couldn’t see how it all worked together. It was extraordinary. If I hadn’t seen it myself I’d never have believed it.”

Ann-Marie, who is now a mission parter with the Church Mission Society (CMS), hopes that 28 Too Many will serve as a best practice umbrella organisation, a web community, which brings together and empowers all the groups working to combat FGM in African countries.

It will also be a source of educational materials on FGM, tailored to the specific needs of communities, and a provider of psychological support for women suffering from fistula and trauma.

“My role is to keep the vision going, to travel around the 28 countries to encourage networking amongst those working against FGM, and find a link person for each country to team up with their neighbours.

“My strategy also includes advocacy and lobbying, involving media and political work. It’s an absolutely enormous task because FGM involves deeply ingrained cultural ideas and practices, so to counter it is to swim against the tide in these countries, and I’m just at the beginning.”

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Ann-Marie Wilson was nominated for an Inspiring Individual Award by Katharine Shaw from Ware, Herts

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