"If a legal norm does not mirror a social norm, then there is an inherent tension that can remain unresolved. The law should not be avoided, but nor is it a panacea; we need to work with people and social norms."
Julia Lalla-Maharajh spent 18 years in the corporate sector, using her skills in communications and advocacy, with policy specialisms in transport and infrastructure. In 2007, she volunteered in Cambodia, then in 2008 in Ethiopia, where she came to understand more about female genital cutting (FGC). In 2010 she won a YouTube competition to take an urgent human rights cause to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Volunteering then in Senegal and The Gambia she witnessed sustainable, effective change which led her to found and lead the NGO 'Orchid Project' in 2011 with a vision of a world free from female genital cutting. She now focuses on social change and social justice, remaining true to her commitment to gender equality and working as a catalyst across different sectors. She is a successful public speaker, attracting different audiences, who are inspired by her story of change. She is one of the Evening Standard's Power 1,000: London's Most Influential People and was awarded an OBE for services to ending female genital cutting. At the UN General Assembly in 2019 she was given the "Ally Award" by survivors of female genital cutting. Julia is a board member of the international volunteering for development charity VSO and chair of Under One Sky, a homelessness charity.
For further reading and reading on ending female genital cutting, see: “Changing a Harmful Social Convention: Ending Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting" UNICEF Innocenti, 2008; and the book "Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese, Vintage, 2009.
In a brilliant personal essay that mixes reportage with personal reflection and analysis, Julia Lalla-Maharajh OBE brings to life the awkward dance between social change and legal reform. One of the world’s most effective campaigners against female genital cutting, she is clear-eyed about the limitations of legal reform: she notes that in 26 of the 28 African countries where it happens, there are laws forbidding it, and yet it continues unabated. She quotes a regional Somaliland justice minister: “Do you want me to lock up everyone involved in cutting a girl? How am I going to lock up 98% of the population?” More than that: the “perps” in this “crime” are not some distant evil authority, or even the patriarchs of the community, but mothers themselves, fulfilling an age-old social obligation. She advocates, instead, the laborious process of “norm-changing”, and to this end she describes, vividly, replacement rituals she has witnessed in communities in Gambia and Kenya. “When communities believe that the social shame and stigma of being uncut is in fact, a social death for a girl, they will do all they can to ensure that their practice is maintained, even if it means breaking the law. But if the entire community has been educated, informed, and told about the law and its repercussions – if people have gone through a values shift that upholds the rights of a girl and then the law enforces that – then real change can happen.”