Ayan Said has walked alongside migrant and refugee communities for a decade, unpacking a deeply cultural and sensitive issue, and holding space for change.
The AUT PhD student was a driving force behind the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Crimes Amendment Bill, passed in July 2020, which ensures that all forms of female circumcision are illegal in New Zealand.
As the country’s first cross-party multimembers’ bill, the historic occasion was made all the more remarkable by four female members of parliament putting aside party allegiances to join forces on a global women’s issue.
Ayan, a programme coordinator at the NZ FGM Education Programme, and Nikki Denholm, the programme’s director, began lobbying for legislation change in 2008.
“We were all working together for positive change, and the dedication everyone had to the cause was amazing, but it didn’t occur overnight,” says Ayan.
International agencies have been working to eliminate FGM for 30 years, but the practice hasn’t subsided. Almost 200 million women and girls living today have undergone female circumcision.
“We had been building relationships with communities for years and wanted to protect them from further marginalisation. One negative media story could have ruined that. It always comes back to consent.”
While agencies and NGOs focus on it as a rights issue, and the language of advocacy is well understood, the social repercussions for women and girls in FGM-practicing communities are slow to change. To remain uncircumcised may still render a girl unclean, unmarriable, socially ostracised, and vulnerable to abuse.
“Any initiatives to eliminate female genital mutilation must address these powerful social factors and consider how elimination might occur without any social damage to the women and girls involved,” says Ayan.
“Change cannot come from agencies, it has to come from within communities. Behavioural change is slow and until people are ready to change, the only thing you can do is hold space – walk alongside people on their journey.”
The FGM Crimes Amendment Bill was a major milestone, but legislation alone is not enough, says Ayan.
Eliminating FGM requires primary prevention of the practice, with the backing of the relevant community, utilising a range of mechanisms, such as legal frameworks, education and advocacy, as well as ongoing specialised care for those women and girls already affected.
Ayan was born in Somalia, a country with the world’s highest rate of FGM at around 98 percent. Her parents were extraordinary in ‘having the courage to say no’ and shield their daughter from the practice.
It was half a world away in New Zealand that Ayan became aware of the issue, and began training as an educator at the NZ FGM Education Programme, while working towards a double degree in Public Health and Psychology at AUT. Her master’s thesis, which captures the voices of women living with FGM in Auckland, considered culturally appropriate approaches to end female circumcision and ways the health sector could better partner with affected communities.
But Ayan points out that campaigning for change is not always about making noise. In a move that may seem counterintuitive, she and her collaborators declined media interviews, possibly dozens over the years.
“Media headlines and picket signs wouldn’t necessarily accomplish positive sustainable change. Shining a light on a community that isn’t ready for that would be disrespectful. We had been building relationships with communities for years and wanted to protect them from further marginalisation. One negative media story could have ruined that. It always comes back to consent,” she says.
Ayan remains committed to empowering communities. Her current research, part of a PhD in Public Health, aims to create space for young internally displaced Somali women to develop ideas for reproductive health services in Puntland. Her quiet activism will continue to create big change.