13 May 2014

Inspiring a generation to end FGM

Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Vivien Cohen.

Being a woman means different things to many different people - what defines womanhood and femininity has changed over societies and cultures, for millennia. Women have been seen as sex symbols and slaves, Madonnas and whores, workhorses and goddesses.  Looking forward, it is perhaps not too far-fetched to hope that women around the world can start to be defined by what they can accomplish, rather than by the gender they were born as.

While this may be true for many of us, there are still innumerable women who are trapped by their gender, and by the cultural restraints that this places on them. For these women, they are defined by what their sex is worth; how marriageable they are, how fertile they are, how pure. It is within definitions such as these that FGM still thrives. For girls in practising communities around the world, they are considered neither marriageable nor pure until their genitals have been mutilated. Herein lies the savage contradiction - they cannot be ‘truly’ women until their womanhood is forcibly altered. In one fell swoop innocence and trust are robbed from them in a process that is as intrusive as it is excruciatingly painful.

Yet women around the world are proving that it is possible to heal from this unfathomably traumatic procedure- to rise from the ashes and turn their pain and past suffering into a tool which can be used to prevent future generations from being subjected to the same fate. These women campaign tirelessly against FGM, often at great personal, social and emotional cost and through their work have saved countless girls from being cut, thus moving ever closer to breaking this harmful intergenerational cycle.

Below is compiled only a short list of the incredibly brave and admirable women who work daily to make an end to FGM a reality.

Having spent years confronting her past and the trauma of the FGM that was carried out on her at the age of seven, Leyla Hussein has made it her mission to see FGM eradicated. A psychotherapist and co founder of the charity 'Daughters of Eve', Ms Hussein helps women who have undergone FGM come to terms with what has happened to them, and put their lives back together. She came to the forefront of the UK media with her November 2013 documentary ‘The Cruel Cut’, in which she explored her own past, looked at the prevalence of FGM in the UK and examined the perception of FGM in both practising and non-practising communities. Over the course of her unflinching look at FGM in the UK, Ms Hussein was also filmed as she went public with her petition to the government, demanding  a concerted, interdepartmental effort to tackle FGM at its roots and thus stop more British girls from having to go through what she was forced to endure as a child. http://www.dofeve.org/

Dr Isatou Touray has spent three decades fighting for women's rights and an end to FGM. She established the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP) in 1984, an organisation which aims to eradicate FGM and child marriage through the education of practising communities. Through GAMCOTRAP and her  Dropping of the Knife programme Dr Touray  has helped to save many hundreds of girls as well as re-educate their communities. The education based approach of GAMCOTRAP and Dropping of the Knife  has seen awareness raised on both a national and international scale. Not only are girls empowered, but those who might perpetrate FGM- parents, religious leaders and traditional circumcisers- are invited to teaching sessions where the dangers of FGM are explained and a positive dialogue about changing attitudes can be opened up. Despite being subjected to FGM as a child, Dr  Touray has ensured that countless girls, her own daughters included, will not have to experience the same. http://www.gamcotrap.gm/content/index.php

Unlike many of her peers, Bogaletch Gebre - by defying her father and learning in secret - managed to secure for herself a well rounded education that would eventually lead to university. However, like so many others both before and since then, she was unable to avoid FGM. In 1987 she and her sister founded  KMG Ethiopia. The organisation aims, through community led dialogue and education, to address taboo subjects such as FGM and child marriage with a view to reshaping perceptions and eventually eradicating these harmful traditions. Her position in and knowledge of the practising community allows Ms Gebre to use the education that so many other women are deprived of to correct assumptions about FGM and re-educate those who might otherwise take part in it.  KMG Ethiopia aims to fight violence against women, as well as empowering them and challenging the gender inequalities that remain inherent to this day.  As of 2013, areas where  KMG Ethiopia had worked with the community saw the prevalence of FGM drop from almost 100% to only 3%. http://www.kmg-ethiopia.org/

Waris Dirie was at the pinnacle of her prestigious supermodel career when she went public about undergoing FGM as a child in Somalia, in a Marie Claire interview that would be read all over the globe. Ms Dirie subsequently turned her back on the world of fashion and modelling and began to campaign tirelessly to put an end to the practice. The same year as her now famous interview, Ms Dirie was appointed a UN Special Ambassador for the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.  Over the past 17 years Ms Dirie has used her ambassadorial position to raise awareness and funding towards putting a stop to FGM. In 2002 she founded the Desert Flower Foundation, which uses donations to sponsor girls through school  and to support their families. The charity enters into a contractual agreement with the parents of these adopted 'desert flowers' whereby it is agreed that the children will not be cut, something which is regularly monitored by the foundation's medical team. Ms Dirie's foundation also provides  re-constructive surgery for women who have already been subjected to FGM. http://www.desertflowerfoundation.org/en/

Agnes Pareiyo has spent nearly two decades not only educating girls, their parents and traditional circumcisers about the dangers of FGM, but also rescuing those girls who refuse to be subjected to it. Ms Pareiyo is founder of the Tasaru Ntomonok Girls Rescue Centre in Narok, Kenya and it is to this safe haven that girls are either brought or run to, for as long as is necessary, to escape mutilation. The daughter of a Maasai chief, Ms Pareiyo initially escaped FGM but was forced to undergo it at the age of 14. It was then that she vowed to protect other girls from having to endure the same. The Tasaru Ntomonok Girls Rescue Centre focusses on providing care, shelter and an education for the girls who walk through its doors. Where possible, girls are reunited with their families after a process of education and negotiation. The centre also pioneers an alternative rite of passage, which allows girls to make the transition to womanhood without the need to be cut. Over the years, hundreds of girls have been saved the pain and trauma of FGM and have instead received an education and a brighter future, for both themselves and their families. http://www.friendsofunfpa.org/netcommunity/page.aspx?pid=246

Each year  more than three million girls are at risk of undergoing the same violation of mind, body and soul that countless women have suffered for many thousands of years.  It is both shocking and unacceptable that so many people are ignorant as to the suffering of such a vast amount of girls and women and that children are still forced to endure a procedure that is both traumatic and wholly unnecessary.  Yet change is coming, and this overwhelming tide is in great part down to women like those mentioned above, who are not defined by their past experiences, but rather galvanised by what has happened to them to make sure that the next generation of girls can live their lives free from the threat of FGM.

If you are inpsired by these amazing anti-FGM campaigners and would like to help protect girls and women from FGM please support our work to end FGM. You can donate to fund our research and projects, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Thank you.