Dr. Leyla Hussein

Welcome to Hello World’s interview series showcasing the work of individuals and organisations that are championing education and helping marginalised communities to shape their own future.

EDUCATION IS…Learning to care for yourself

Dr. Leyla Hussein OBE is a psychotherapist specialising in supporting survivors of sexual abuse. She is a global speaker on gender rights and an international lecturer on female genital mutilation (FGM), recognised as one of the key experts on this issue globally. She was part of the team behind the project, The Girl Generation, focusing on the importance of the emotional wellbeing of activists working with survivors of FGM. She has shared this approach through consultations with the UN and has presented the success of its impact at the ICPD summit in Nairobi.

Dr Hussein’s passion is to create safe spaces for women and girls, which has led to her founding The Dahlia Project, the UK’s first specialist therapeutic service for FGM survivors and the Magool Foundation, promoting health and wellbeing. In 2020, Leyla co-founded Safe Spaces for Black Women, a community providing emotional support and wellbeing resources for black women around the world. Towards the end of 2020, Leyla was elected to become the Rector of the University of St Andrews, becoming the first black woman to ever hold the position. She has also recently started working as the Global Advocacy Director of the Africa-led Movement to End FGM and is based between Kenya and the United Kingdom.

As a writer, Leyla has been published in national and international media and she regularly appears in both print and broadcast as an expert commentator on women’s rights and health. Her work has been presented at Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Leeds, Exeter, Coventry University, International School of Geneva and many Ivy League faculties in the US Including Columbia, Harvard, Georgetown, George Washington and Pennsylvania university.

If you could write on your school report, what comments would you make?

GCSE’s made me feel like it was the end of my life if I didn’t pass them. That’s it. Life was over. If only I’d realised then that there would be so many opportunities out there for me, that I’d end up doing something very different from what I was planning to do. I would have written on my report: ‘Don’t stress out!’ 

The trouble was, I was never like the kids in my school. I had to grow up very quickly because we became refugees, and since my dad didn’t come with us, I had to be the other parent for my siblings. I became an adult at the age of 12, missing out my teenage years. So I would also tell my younger self to have more fun.

What did you dream of becoming when you were a child and what obstacles got in your way?

I wanted to be a journalist. I loved writing. What got in the way was my parents. My mum worked for the Somali government and journalists got killed. At the time I didn’t realise why she was trying to put me off, but of course there was a real fear for her. And actually even now, because I have written for so many publications, she reminds me: ‘Oh so it didn’t work? Me telling you not to write.’ It’s an area I still struggle with but a dream I still need to explore. 

Even in school I was always investigating dangerous topics or unpacking difficult conversations. I wanted to talk about the things that people didn’t want to talk about. There was a TV show on Channel 4 called ‘Your Shout’ in which there were 30-second issues-based pieces. So our English teacher gave us a similar assignment. I chose the subject of abortion – back in 1994! As a 13 year old girl wearing a hijab! Can you imagine?

You have campaigned tirelessly for girls’ rights to education, healthcare and safety. What lessons has this work taught you?

Number one lesson: I need to practice what I preach. I talk about the wellbeing of girls but I never check mine first. I suffer from a condition called fibromyalgia which makes me really ill. I have chronic pain. And of course stress and anxiety doesn’t help. Only my work brings with it a lot of that, so I really need to apply and embody the messages that I teach, especially when it comes to my physical and emotional safety. That’s a big lesson for me and it’s going to be a life-long job – learning to take care of myself – but it has to be at the forefront of everything I do.

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