“I was shocked when I first saw the scars a woman had when I worked as a midwife, and decided I wanted to learn more about what FGM was. When I learned the truth about the danger, lifelong health complications, the pain women go through having the practice done, and even death, I realised I couldn’t let this happen to another girl again,” says Gift.
In Ugep – a village where they have been working since 2010 – there is a large tree, that towers over the children standing next to it. Around its trunk are ribbons of cloth used to tie young girls who had reached puberty, in preparation for their clitoris and labia to be cut off in the public square as part of a ritual to symbolise their entry into womanhood. They stopped cutting girls in public about five years ago, but we know it still happens in secret
“They stopped cutting girls in public about five years ago, but we know it still happens in secret because we work with the cutters. Most of the girls you see around here will be cut … a lot of them are probably young mothers too,” she says.
Advocates for FGM say the practice is a deep-rooted tradition, and believe that a girl will be sexually promiscuous if she has not been cut. A cut girl is considered clean and neat, and properly prepared for her journey into womanhood.
A cutter in the village of Agwagune, who attends one of the couple’s workshops, explained why she continues to cut girls for a living: “This practice has been passed down by our ancestors for generations, but we know it is wrong. I cut for a living because it’s the way of the people here, it is how I live. But of course I want to stop, it’s just that I make my living from this, so what would I do if I stopped?”
Part of Gift and Abu’s workshops include teaching the cutters new skills including basket weaving, jewellery making or running a fishery.
“We organize a workshop for all of them that want to learn, teach them and tell them how it can be sustained. We give them money to start the business. For the fishery, where we can, we provide them with water pumps for their ponds. This can make them more than three times as much money as doing FGM. So it’s within their interest to stop,” said Abu.
The couple had been working in Agwagune for five years and had not yet met the local chief to ask him to take a stand against FGM. His word is considered a declaration of law in the village and would add weight to their vital work. During our time there, an opportunity came up to meet him.
As Gift and Abu showed him a video of a young girl being cut, he raised his hand signalling to stop the video, clearly disturbed by what he had seen.
“I will be sure to condemn the act of FGM. I will send out a town crier to inform the villagers, gather the woman of the village, and explain that this must stop. No girl will undergo this pain and suffering again,” he said.
The “town crier” carries the word of the local chief to the people. It is the strongest possible message to send in these communities. Gift and Abu celebrated a rare breakthrough moment on their mission. But the pregnant woman who died in Gift’s arms in August last year left behind a young boy of five, Emmanuel, who was now orphaned and outcast from society because his mother was branded “unclean” and a “bad omen”.
“Emmanuel’s father was protecting his wife from being cut but after he died, the cutters found their chance. They tried to force her to undergo FGM during labour and told me that I was to blame for her death because I told them not to cut her,” Gift said.
Gift took Emmanuel and found him a safe home with family friend Grace, alongside two other girls, Chinwe, seven, and Faith, nine, who had also been rescued before FGM could be carried out. Their mothers refused to have them cut but feared that if the girls stayed with them, they would be snatched and forced to undergo the procedure.
Gift Augustine with Grace and her children. Photograph: Hajra Rahim
We found Emmanuel at the one-bedroom home he now shares with his foster mother, clutching her hand delicately, engrossed by the television. Upon seeing us, he jumped from his bed and ran around with excitement, giving high-fives. We asked him about school and what he wants to do when he grows up. “I’m going to be the president of Nigeria!” he said.
Emmanuel seemed, on the surface, heartbreakingly untouched by the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death because of a practice that is meant to be illegal in the country he hopes to rule one day.
The dangers of working in these circumstances are very real. Recently, when travelling to the Nnam village in north Nigeria, the couple were warned upon entering that they might be attacked. Abu ignored the threats and proceeded to sit in the “fatting room” – a small dark room lit only by candlelight where girls are genitally mutilated – refusing to let a single girl be cut. He managed to save over 200 girls from being cut.
The couple’s work has inspired the growth of a network of activists across Nigeria fighting against FGM. With a unique approach and teaching methods, they are working successfully in the places where the country-wide law has yet to be acknowledged, let alone obeyed.
However, a few months after his visit, the news came that two activists they had trained there had “died in their sleep” after speaking out about FGM. Gift and Abu are convinced their deaths were no accident.
Gift and Abu’s mission around Nigeria has been under way for the last eight years. Founded and funded in 2009 by Projects for All (PFA) – a non profit organisation that runs multiple schemes to tackle poverty, all with a core value of community-led development. PFA’s Heroes programme supports community activists in the field, covering their salaries for 10 years so that they can focus on their critical work – Gift and Abu are PFA Heroes.
If you would like to help Gift and Abu on their mission to end FGM in Nigeria, follow . this link to donate