It was a great honour to be invited to attend The Girl Summit in UK which was hosted by the UK Government and United Nations Children’s Fund. www.girlsummitpledge.com
But before I got there, I had to get a badge. Having experienced government bureaucracy in other countries, it was a pleasant surprise to reach Whitehall and find everything in order. That’s when I first discovered that there are 600 delegates coming to the Summit. We were told that the program will only be available at the entrance.
So I made my way to Walworth Academy on 22 July early in the morning. The security was very tight and media swarmed all over the place. When I got the program I understood why. Starting with Ban Ki-Moon in the opening plenary to Sheikh Hasina Prime Minister of Bangladesh and David Cameron, it was a high profile event.
The theme of the Summit was “A Future Free from FGM and Child and Force Marriage”. As an activist for women’s rights my entire adult life, I know how hard it has been to bring women’s issues on the front burner. Especially those issues that are taboo to discuss or debate. So it was with great pleasure that I started listening to the conversation around me.
When the documentary Honor Diaries was released, one of the criticisms against it was “why is the focus on Muslim Majority Societies?” Well I got the answer at the Summit. Today in areas of the Muslim world ruled by despots like ISIS and Boko Haram, forced and underage marriage and FGM are being promoted – while in UK a country where these practices did not originate, an International charter is being drawn up to end FGM and forced/child marriages in this generation. I felt proud and motivated to be part of the Honor Diaries movement which is still cutting-edge in breaking the barriers of silence.
Speaking of Honor Diaries, I was inspired by the number of women at the Summit who had seen the film and commented on it. Jaha Dukuray found me in the crowd although she was being filmed by The Guardian, and we had a few moments of bonding.
All VIP’s were welcomed into the summit compound by the “Pandemonium Drummers” so when we heard drumming, we knew someone important was entering. This is how I saw Malala Yousafzai and her father walk in. I ran up to Malala to give her an Honor Diaries scarf and her handlers tried to brush me off but I said “Malala belongs to the same heritage as I am from, so her movement belongs to all of us and I am from her homeland”. I managed to gift her a DVD and scarf before she was whisked away.
Later I went to the Plenary and on the way I saw the VIP and media room so I just walked in with my journalist cap on. Here I was able to meet many people face-to-face. An African girl walked upto me and said “you are my hero”. I was a bit taken aback. She introduced herself as Alimatu Dimoneken who is an FGM survivor and had seen Honor Diaries. She said my family reminded her of her family. I also met Malala’s father and gave him another DVD just to ensure that he has a copy. He promised to visit when he comes to Canada as we spoke the same language. Then I met John Baird, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Canada. As a fellow-Canadian I was proud of his being the facilitator for a session on Action for Change. I also met Gordon Campbell, our Canadian High Commissioner in Britain. All of them spoke out against FGM and Forced/Child Marriage. Hina Jilani, Supreme Court Advocate from Pakistan was there and she said “It’s time to make Governments accountable for their duties towards their citizens and International relations need to be strengthened to change social policy.”
At a later session Malala was on a panel with Sheikh Hasina. Malala spoke about her visit to Nigeria to meet with the families of the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. She is an impressive and eloquent speaker (without notes) and she said “It’s we who create a culture in which women can’t be educated – so we can change those cultures that go against human rights”. Her solution – educate all girls. Sheikh Hasina spoke about a move in Bangladesh to make education free for all girls until graduation.
Heads of African States spoke about commitments, targets and change. But nowhere is the change more obvious than in the UK where the problems have been immense but so too have the solutions.
Prime Minister David Cameron made a surprise appearance. He spoke with great conviction about the changes made in the UK legal, Justice and Educational systems to tackle FGM and Child/Forced Marriage. Not only have they invested finances into this movement, but man power and well. He said it’s now mandatory in UK for teachers and doctors to report signs of FGM or forced/child marriages. Parents will be convicted. At the time he spoke, 21 countries had signed up with the Girl charter as well as 230 organizations. I was able to present him with an Honor Diaries DVD as well.
Jasvinder Sanghera of Karma Nirvana who has appeared in Honor Diaries was up front and Centre having worked on forced marriages since her organization was formed. She introduced me to many of the movers and shakers in the field.
Over lunch, we had a short screening of the forced marriage clip from Honor Diaires and there were some good questions. One young South Asian girl asked “what about the victims?” and later she came to me and told me her story. She is of Pakistani origin, born and brought up in London. She was only 12 when she came home from school one day and was asked to wear a bridal dress and married off against her will to a man much older than her because the family had decided this is her future. She was not allowed to study and two years later, she gave birth to two kids. She was sent to Pakistan, came back and decided to leave her abusive husband for which she was ex-communicated from her family. She managed to educate herself and now has grown up children and spends her time counselling women like hersef. The need for support systems for women in her situation became very apparent.
Later in the Summit there were celebrities like actor Freida Pinto. I left inspired by what I had experienced. If North America could only take a lesson from UK, we will have solved a huge problem that exists on this Continent as well.