As one of our best-loved comediennes, Dawn French is associated with – relied on, even – to make us laugh. Even when she’s tackling the most serious, heart-rending issues with Comic Relief, we wait eagerly for the daft sketch or sparky punchline. However, for the past six years, Dawn has been working quietly, consistently and passionately with a charity that doesn’t have "much to be funny about", she says. "But we try to go about it in as friendly a way as we can."
London-based Orchid Project was founded by Julia Lalla-Maharajh in 2010 with a vision to free the world from female genital cutting (FGC), which has affected more than 200 million women and girls around the world. It works with people and grassroots organisations in those countries where the practice is prevalent, such as Kenya, Senegal and India, to try to change attitudes and practices.
"It was an issue I knew about, felt dreadful about and was horrified by," Dawn tells HELLO!. "But as a white Western woman I felt that it wasn't my place to judge."
Dawn French with activist Jay K Frederick, Orchid Project founder Julia Lalla-Maharajh and author Hibo Wardere
Nevertheless, when she was approached by Julia six years ago and asked to help raise awareness and funds, she felt it was time for her to take action. Or, as she puts it: "From my comfortable place of safety, it was my duty to listen to people, to girls who were not safe."
One of the first things Dawn learned was that the FGC isn't rooted in religious belief, as she thought, but in social norm. Parents have their daughter cut because they believe it is the right thing socially.
"It is a very potent thing," says the actress. "If you believe your daughter will not be able to marry at all if you don't do this, as quickly as possible, and don't allow her to join her sisters who are also cut and if it’s regarded as unclean or unacceptable not to be, then you're going to hold on to that social norm."
Orchid works with locally trained people from the communities and villages where FGC takes place. By gaining their trust over weeks and months, the charity can slowly educate and change attitudes.
"If you explain the damage that happens to people's psychology – their sexual confidence, the physiological damage, which includes urine infections, scarring, painful sex, complications in childbirth and high death rates – then people are very quick to understand," Dawn says. "But it takes a long time for people to trust each other."
Dawn speaks passionately about some of the survivors who work tirelessly against FGC, including Marieme Bamba, who has had stones thrown at her while walking from village to village in Senegal to talk about cutting, Hibo Wardere, the author of the groundbreaking Cut, and Jay K Frederick, who was raised in Britain but sent to Sierra Leone when she was 15 to experience her "initiation".
Women from communities in Senegal make an official declaration that they are ending the practice of female genital cutting after receiving help and advice from Orchid Project
"It happened under the auspices of her family, who loved her but felt they had to do this in their daughter’s best interest," Dawn says. "Jay is eloquent, elegant and channelling her outrage in a very powerful way. She's also optimistic and the reason she can be is because she is part of a huge movement which is happening right now.
"Change is going to happen," she adds. "There's no doubt."
The charity has already brought about some impressive results. In Senegal alone, 247 communities have declared they are abandoning FGC while 33 per cent of girls from the Masai community in south-western Kenya have gone through an alternative rite of passage ceremony and remained uncut.
Since joining the cause, Dawn has hosted several fundraising events, most recently thanks to Jill Stein at the Rick Stein restaurant in south-west London, where guests included Holly Willoughby, Fearne Cotton, Emma Willis, Ruth Jones, Gok Wan and Bananarama.
Having said yes to almost every charity invitation when she first started out, Dawn realised she had to "focus on just a few things" along with her career and family. At the moment, she's busy writing her fourth novel at the Cornwall home she shares with husband Mark Bignell. "I'm locked away in my room, where I can look out to sea," she tells us.
"I like this part of my life. I'm settled in my home, near my family, and if I have a slightly s****y day writing, it doesn't matter. This is the life I've chosen and I'm very happy with it."
As well as this, there is the third series of Delicious, the Sky drama in which she stars with Emilia Fox, to film and other "exciting projects" in the pipeline, which fans will hope include something with her comedy partner Jennifer Saunders. "It's very difficult to work with Jen because there's so much to catch up on, so much gossiping to do, so much fun to be had, that our friendship can actually get in the way of working," she says.
Dawn French is currently writing her fourth novel at home in Cornwall
"We spend all day having a laugh and then realise in the last half hour that we've actually got to do something and hand it to our producer."
And now there's also speaking publicly about Orchid Project. "Thus far, I have supported Orchid quietly," she says. "But it's so important to keep the work going. This is the year of women," she adds. "Here we are – we’re mighty and we're strong. And we cannot sleep at night knowing we're not doing anything about this.
"So from your comfortable place of safety, I urge you to please reach out and help this vital work to continue."
For more information and to donate, visit orchidproject.org