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'It wasn’t hard to decide to run away. FGM was just like death because of the bleeding'

ActionAid is launching a new international strategy, based on supporting people-led efforts to end poverty, injustice and gender inequality, writes CEO Siobhán McGee.

Siobhán McGee CEO of ActionAid Ireland

ABIGAIL RAN AWAY from home when she was 13 when her parents wanted her to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). She was scared because a girl in the neighbourhood had died from excessive bleeding the day before Abigail was due to be cut. She found safety at an ActionAid-funded safe house in Kongelai, Kenya. And encouraged her friend Purity, 13, to come there a year later when Purity too was at risk of FGM.

“It wasn’t difficult to make the decision to run away,” Abigail told us. “FGM was just like death because of the bleeding. Then, there are also some of the things that come after it. After FGM, I would get married off and could have complications during child birth. So it is just something that is equal to death for me. “So running away was an easy decision, because if I die on the way, it wouldn’t be any different.”

ActionAid is changing, and this month we are launching a new international strategy, based on supporting people-led efforts to end poverty, injustice and gender inequality.

Evolving our approach

Fundamentally we see poverty and injustice not just as intolerable, but preventable.

ActionAid has always been innovative and has evolved its approach. We were one of the first international non-governmental organisations to shift power to country offices and to move our head office to the global south – since 2004 our international headquarter has been in South Africa.

From the beginning we have sought to end poverty, not only through providing direct relief to those who need it most, but with a long-term mission to tackle the structural causes of poverty and injustice.

The positive changes our supporters are helping make happen are very evident in Kongelai, for girls like Abigail and Purity. Incidences of FGM have decreased there by 27% because of ActionAid’s work (funded by Irish Aid and with support from Ireland). We have provided safe shelter such as that Purity and Abigail used, and provided practical help to girls to stay in school.

The world has changed since 1972

The world has changed since 1972, when ActionAid was first founded as a charity. There are hundreds of millions fewer people in poverty worldwide today, but the impact of climate change could reverse this progress. Many countries are witnessing increased deregulation, dismantling of social protections and privatising crucial public services. And amidst all this, people are organising, defending and claiming their rights.

Social movements and alliances are mobilising to challenge rising inequalities. Crises are opening up space for change, but the struggle to occupy that for public good rather than private or corporate gain is ongoing.

There is growing acknowledgement that many, if not all, social justice issues are interconnected. Our work on the ground has shown that women’s leadership is vital in humanitarian emergencies, women often being best placed to support their families and the communities around them.

It’s evident that public services, like education for our children or street lights to help women stay safe in cities, need to be financed by robust tax systems that don’t give powerful people and corporations a free ticket.

We firmly believe that now is a critical time for social justice. With all of the progress made worldwide, we must keep up our momentum; which is both our strength and our proof that change is possible.

Social justice, gender equality and poverty eradication are achieved through individual and collective action. Active and organised people develop and drive change; which will transform power when it is led by those who are directly affected, and by people committed to deepening democracy and achieving social justice.

A catalyst and a contributor

ActionAid is both a catalyst and a contributor to social change processes. We support people like Abigail and Purity to make changes in their own lives. Essentially to raise awareness of their rights and come together to achieve those rights.

In our work, we have witnessed countless examples of how lasting change happens when people living in poverty come together to claim and enjoy their rights. From fisherfolk in Cambodia achieving access and control over the mangroves that would otherwise be grabbed by international companies, to women in many parts of the world, coming together to claim their right to safety in cities and achieving changes from lighting to patrolling or safe public transport. From young people organising to claim their rights to democracy in The Gambia, to young activists coming together to denounce corruption in Uganda.

With our new international strategy, Action for Global Justice, we will as never before connect such struggles so together we can confront the deep causes of injustice and to change power relations and ensure the priorities of the many are not precluded by the few.

We owe it to girls like Abigail and Purity to give them the best chance in life.

Siobhán McGee is CEO of ActionAid Ireland.

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About the author:

Siobhán McGee  / CEO of ActionAid Ireland

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