AT first sight the mothers dressed in their colourful dresses look like any other women. But underneath lies a tale of tradition and cultural practice – their external genitals have been totally or partially removed – a procedure most likely to have been carried out when they were young girls. Their community believes this is a ritual that should be followed and if not, they will be outcast as unclean and sexually promiscuous.

In November I was privileged to witness an incredible moment of change as 557 communities from the surrounding villages of Médina Yoro Foulah, Senegal, gathered to make a public declaration of the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC – more commonly referred to as Female Genital Mutilation) and to photograph the men, women, elders and children ready to make that difference.

Aside from working as a newspaper photographer with Berkshire Media Group I had the opportunity to volunteer with UK-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Orchid Project, travelling with them to the Southern regions of Senegal.

Founded in 2010, Orchid’s primary aim is to empower local communities through projects and partnership programmes, working to end the social norm of FGC within the next generation. This call for change at a grassroots level is fundamental to the way Orchid works and the reason I support and work with the charity.

It is about education and not forcing our Western views on these communities, but starting a dialogue and teaching the girls that they deserve a right to a better future, free of health problems and maternal difficulties, as well as choice and freedom over their own bodies.

The abandonment ceremony was the end result of years of education and social empowerment that programmes like Orchid support. Orchid and other NGOs work to help enable communities to learn about their human rights as well as discuss the harmful health consequences of FGC.

For Orchid Project an end to FGC supports a woman’s life choices that can lead to her economic and social empowerment.

Such a commitment to abandon a tradition and ritual would mean girls stay at school longer, marry and have children at an older age – giving them greater access to jobs and financial opportunities.

And it is not just an African issue. There is now more awareness of it happening in the UK with Thames Valley Police and Crime Commissioner Anthony Stanfeld pledging to tackle the practice among communities in the South East this year. And Baroness Cox, CEO and founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust, raised the topic in a parliamentary debate stressing the techniques used by projects such as Orchid need to be adopted in this country too.