Leyla Hussein is a Somali psychotherapist and social activist. She is Chief Executive of Hawa’s Haven, and a co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation which campaigns for greater awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) and works to support young women and girls.
Hussein was born in 1980 in Somalia. At the age of seven, she underwent FGM. She was pinned down on a table by four women and cut, after which she received presents, which made her doubt the people she should have trusted. In Somalia, 98 percent of girls and women undergo some form of FGM and a study by City University London found that between 1996 to 2010, about 144,000 girls in England and Wales were born to mothers from countries practicing FGM, meaning many of these girls may be at risk.
Hussein later emigrated to the UK, and after giving birth to a daughter at the age of 21, was forced to confront the true extent of the psychological trauma that FGM had left her with. She stated that she “I used to be terrified of any intimate medical examination, and a smear test was enough to set off a panic attack. During my antenatal appointments I would often black out. Then, during one of these appointments, a specialist nurse asked me the question no one else knew – or dared – to ask: ‘Were you cut?’ “ From then on, she was provided with information about counselling services but was unable to find support groups for FGM survivors.
Hussein decided to create a support network for women and girls with similar experiences, and enrolled at Thames Valley University where she earned a degree in therapeutic counselling. She also broke the cycle of FGM with her own daughter, which led to difficult conversations with her family who were unaware that they could have a choice in whether or not girls undergo FGM. During this time, she began working with the Young Africans and Friends (YAF) group, which works to tackle issues that are considered taboo in African communities such as HIV/AIDS and female genital mutilation. In 2005, Hussein organised a conference of over 400 people in response to the backlash against Somalis in the UK following the 7/7 London bombings. She worked with the Somali Youth Forum (SYF) to show a more positive image of their community and highlight the talent and contributions of young Somalis. In 2008, Hussein was awarded the Primary Care Trust Breaking Down Barriers Award for her work with young people.
In 2010, Hussein gained a postgraduate diploma in psychotherapy. That same year, she and fellow FGM campaigner Nimko Ali founded Daughters of Eve to raise awareness of FGM in the UK. The organisation aims to “support, advise, advocate and empower young people form FGM practicing and be their unedited voice . While working to end all gender-based violence practically FGM in one generation and gain equality for young people.” In addition to this, she founded the Dahlia project, which provides saviour groups for women and girls who have undergone FGM and Hawa’s Haven, which “is a collective of Somali women campaigners and community activists who have formed with the sole objective of raising awareness about violence against Somali women and children.” She serves as Chief Executive for the organisation.
In June 2013, the NSPCC joined the fight to end FGM and set up a free 24-hour FGM helpline which helped support the message that FGM is a form of child abuse. Later that year, following an in-depth Freedom of Information (FOI) project by journalist Martin Bentham on the prevalence of FGM in the NHS, Hussein and Ali were invited to meet with Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt and Public Health Minister Jane Ellison to discuss the issue. In November that year, Hussein presented a documentary entitled ’The Cruel Cut’ on Channel 4 which follows her campaign and other survivors of FGM fighting to ensure that there is an effective Action Plan to eliminate FGM in the UK. The program was later nominated for a BAFTA.
Hussein and Ali have managed to bring FGM into the spotlight and break the taboo surrounding it in the UK. In 2014, following their successful e-petition calling for a stop to FGM, the Girl Summit 2014 hosted by the UK government and UNICEF announced new action and funding to protect those at risk from FGM and forced marriage in a generation. That same year, they were named as two of Britain’s most influential women in the BBC Woman’s hour power list. Hussein has been honoured with a number of awards for her activism, including the 2012 True Honour Award by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Right organisation, the Ambassador for Peace Prize by the Inter-religious and International Peace Federation, the Lin Groves Special Award and the Emma Humphrey Award.
Hussein currently works with a number of organisations in order to eradicate FGM, including the metropolitan police as part of Project Azure and advises the END FGM European campaign supported by Amnesty International Ireland. She also serves as an Independent Training Consultant, and Community Facilitator at the Manor Garden Health Advocacy Project. Hussein has been invited to speak on Somali issues on local, national and international television and radio programs including including the BBC world radio service, World has your say, BBC Today and Five Live, Universal TV (Somali TV), Channel 5, Al Jazeera, Islamic channel, BBC 24 and took part in a dispatches documentary on refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.