Three years ago, on Easter Bank Holiday Monday, I made a decision that changed the course of my life. I was in my garden and the sun was shining, but all I felt despair…
Since January of that year, I’d been driving a legal campaign to help my friend Afusat Saliu and her two little girls with their asylum case on the grounds of the risk of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on Afusat’s daughters if they were returned to Nigeria.
I’d been introduced to Afusat by my close friend, Pria Bhabra, who leads on Leeds City Council’s award-winning Migrant Access Project and who knew that I wanted to do more to end FGM.
Through the medium of social media, I’d enlisted the expertise of a few amazing women to help prepare the case:
Felicity Gerry, a top Human Rights Barrister based in Australia who mentored us through the legal campaign and continues to guide and inspire me to this day
Bhumika Parmar, the owner of small legal practice, BP Legal, based in Leicester, who led on legal submissions
Helen Duffy, a European Human Rights lawyer based in Brussels
Despite their professional knowledge and support with preparing the case, it still looked like the family would still be deported.
What to do?
As I sat on my decking, cradling a cup of tea, I decided that I couldn’t let them go without raising awareness of their case more widely. Then I had a light bulb moment. I put down my mug, ran inside for my laptop and logged on to Change.org to start a petition. That’s when things snowballed…
Becoming an End FGM campaigner
I expected that around 1000 people might sign my petition, but the public’s support for Afusat and her daughters was incredible. Almost 128,000 people signed my petition, enough to get the national and then international media interested in the story. You can watch one of the interviews by The Guardian here.
We got MPs to speak out and many letters were sent to Theresa May, including one supported by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and around 20 directors, playwrights and performers.
This was led by Alex Chisholm, who worked for the Playhouse at the time and is now the co-Artistic Director of Freedom Studios, where I am Chair of the Board.
However, the Home Office was determined and whisked them off to a family holding centre down South prior to deportation. I got wind that they would be put on a Virgin Airlines charter flight and tweeted out for help.
Thousands tweeted boss Richard Branson and stopped the first scheduled deportation. This was particularly bad PR, since only a month before, he and daughter Holly had been featured in Cosmopolitan speaking up against FGM.
Sadly, the family were deported to Nigeria in June 2014 by another airline. Team Afusat mobilised to raise money to help them secure accommodation and schooling.
Creating a Community of Support
Through the campaigning, I met a few more fabulous women, who are friends to this day. Without social media and the power of networks I may never have met them.
Hilary Burrage, freelance journalist for The Guardian who recently featured Afusat and me in her book ‘Eradicating FGM in the UK’
Louise Robertson, then of 28 Too Many, a London-based FGM charity who has become a dear friend and got me involved in the Leeds launch of ‘Warriors’ film, a beautifully made documentary of young Maasi warriors turned cricketers who used their new-found profile to campaign their elders (and the world!) against FGM
Lizzie Spring, a fundraiser (and now WASPI campaigner) who travelled to Leeds on her own funds to offer help
There are a couple who I can’t name due to sensitivity, but they know who they are. There is also a whole group of men (too many to mention) in their 60s that supported my FGM campaigning and who still send me messages of encouragement on a regular basis.
What I learned
I am still proud of our campaign. We shone a light on the treatment of asylum seekers. None of this would have been possible without the collective known as Team Afusat. We showed that people will come together for a common cause. If we all do a little, it can lead to major change.
This was a traumatic period in my life, but led to huge personal growth and has brought me many opportunities that I couldn’t have anticipated. Change is rarely comfortable, but it brings precious learnings.
Following the deportation, my business partner, Dr Jean Garrod and I, put together a report on the scale of FGM in Leeds. We had determined that London and surrounding areas benefit from funding in this area, but that there was a lack of capacity in small FGM charities to gather robust data to evidence their tenders.
We worked with Leeds City Council and the specialist midwife unit to gather the data and presented the findings at a high-profile conference in the city. You can download the report here.
I’m was also honoured to have been presented an ‘Outstanding Award for The Crusade against Gender-based Violence’ by Peacemaker International.
Below is an example of how my campaigning inspired someone else to follow suit.
“I don’t know Anj Handa personally, but she’s the person who got me write to Theresa May regarding the deportation… I’m almost 5o and have never written in protest before, but someone has to say “This is wrong.”
In a digital age with ease of access to information and protest, where so many causes, so many voices and so much noise dilutes rather than engages, I have found Anj Handa to be a model of information who cares about people and their rights.
Anj Handa is a modern-day protester – she speaks from a place of positivity and the belief that she can create change. She has been a consistent force for changing attitudes towards FGM.”
If I can bring about a movement like this, me – with no training, funding or track record of campaigning on such a scale, so can you. I created Inspiring Women Changemakers so that you too can experience the magic. Join us?
Anj Handa is the Founder of Inspiring Women Changemakers. She helps women to speak up: for themselves, for others and for social issues.