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Joanna Vestey

Campaigning to end female genital cutting

Julia Lalla-Maharajh was a successful corporate executive before a stint as a VSO volunteer turned her into a campaigner determined to end female genital cutting, as she explains to Sarah Ditum.

The well-lit, open-plan office in Vauxhall that houses the Orchid Project is much like many corporate work environments, but in many ways it’s a long way from Julia Lalla-Maharajh’s old life. Once, she was a specialist in transport policy and communications, whose work included the campaign for Crossrail. Then, in 2006, she undertook her first placement with VSO: Cambodia, followed by a 2008 stint in Ethiopia.

Orchid project Clément Tardif

Senegalese villagers gathering to declare an end to FGC in their community. Orchid Project supports our partner Tostan to carry out a Social Mobilisation programme in Senegal.

It was during the latter that she first encountered female genital cutting, or FGC (Julia uses this term in preference to female genital mutilation, for reasons that become apparent as we talk). “I was sitting on my living room floor one weekend soon after I’d arrived, reading Lonely Planet,” she tells me. “There was a little boxed text about the number of girls affected by FGC, and I remember viscerally reading that – 74% of all Ethiopian girls are cut, and that means 15 out of 20 Ethiopian women are cut.”

At the time Julia was working in the VSO country office, meaning this wasn’t just a statistic to her – it was her colleagues. She started to understand the entrenched silence surrounding FGC. “It’s not a water cooler moment. It’s not an easy conversation to have.”

Challenging that silence has since become what she calls her “vocation”, as founder and CEO of the Orchid Project. Setting up a charity was definitely not her original plan: “I was passionate about not setting up a charity! I was of the opinion that there were too many charities in the world,” she says, laughing. However, after returning from Ethiopia, she spent a year knocking on the doors of existing NGOs, and it became apparent that nobody else was doing the work she knew needed to be done.

And so began the Orchid Project: a single-issue campaign to end female genital cutting, working at every level from collaborating with grassroots activists to advocacy within government, right up to the UN.

Senegal Orchid project Clément Tardif

Dancing at an event in Senegal where villagers gather to declare an end to FGC in their community. 

As she talks about her work, Julia is composed and articulate; it is hard to imagine her in any other role. Yet her move into volunteering was far from planned. “It was a total fluke,” she says. “I was walking past Earls Court one day. There was a VSO open day and I thought, you know what, I’m just going to pop in.”

At that point she associated VSO with medics and teachers, and struggled to imagine what she could offer with her 20 years of corporate experience.

As it turned out, she could offer a lot. Her career to date had given her a solid foundation in project management and working with multiple stakeholders – both hugely important for working in development. That’s not to say that the transition was easy: Julia’s placement in Cambodia, where she worked on the Valuing Teachers programme, was her first time living outside the UK.

I remember waking up that first morning and feeling out of every comfort zone I have ever created for myself.

“I remember waking up that first morning and feeling out of every comfort zone I have ever created for myself,” she says. “I didn’t speak the language; I didn’t quite know where I was; I was jetlagged; I didn’t know how to get out of the place I was staying in – it was challenging in the extreme.”

But the beauty of working with VSO is that you’re never alone so, even as Julia was (in her words) “freaking out”, she knew there was a safety net. “Regardless of the time someone’s in-country, it divides up into thirds: your first third, you are utterly at sea and trying to work out the basics; your middle third, you get to grips with it; and then suddenly you’re sprinting towards the end.”

Above all, VSO instilled in her the importance of creating sustainable change rather than imposing from above. “I feel grateful that my introduction to development was very much about working with communities. You get on the local bus, you don’t pay a driver to take you round the country.”

Julia’s communications background meant she was comfortable working with these communities. The Orchid Project works across three strands, partnering, sharing and advocacy, to change hearts and minds. Partnering with on-the-ground campaigns, including Tostan in Senegal and SAFE in Kenya, the Orchid Project’s work starts by opening a dialogue in communities that practise FGC. But for the first six months, they won’t discuss FGC directly at all. Instead, facilitators working in local languages (and ideally of the local ethnic group) will lead a discussion about human rights. This phase, she explains, is called kobi in Mandinka, the language of the Casamance region of Senegal, the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. It means “tilling the soil”.

If we can get an entire community to deliberate, to talk about FGC and to learn about the harmful repercussions, then they can choose for themselves.

orchid project Nekane Requejo de Ozamiz

Julia and Marieme Bamba (social mobilisation agent for Tostan)

Only then comes aawde, or “planting the seed”. “If we can get an entire community to deliberate, to talk about FGC and to learn about the harmful repercussions, then they can choose for themselves,” says Julia. And, she reports, in almost 80% of communities where the Orchid Project model is used, the choice is to abandon the practice – an impressive success rate. Legal enforcement is a useful tool, she says, but only truly effective when it follows rather than attempts to impose a new social norm.

The importance of social norms also explains why the Orchid Project talks about “cutting” rather than “mutilation”. Parents who cut their daughter almost certainly believe that it’s the right thing to do. When an outsider arrives and charges them with mutilation, there’s a chance that not only will the family ignore the anti-FGC message, but they may even defensively redouble their commitment to the practice.

The Orchid Project’s ability to bring about lasting, consensual change is what gives Julia a sense of purpose she never had in her corporate career. “There’s a lovely photo I’ve got on the wall behind me. I was talking to Marieme Bamba, one of our agents. She said to me: ‘The difficult times are when we go to villages. When we start talking about FGC, they tell us to leave and they throw stones at our backs.’ Then she looked at me and said: ‘They throw stones at our back, but I know you’ve got our back.’ And she gave me this huge hug. The photo is of Marieme hugging me. Those are the moments when it makes sense."


Read more about VSO's work in Ethiopia here.

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