14 October 2014

The Cruel Cut Workshop

Guest blog by 28 Too Many volunteer Asha Chadeesingh.

On October 2nd Manor Gardens Centre hosted ‘The Cruel Cut’ workshop, an event I attended as a volunteer for 28 Too Many. The workshop took place in Aldgate East, and featured a range of incredibly interesting speakers, all experts in the field of female genital mutilation (FGM) and the issues that surround the challenge of ending this practice. Open for anyone to attend, the workshop had a mix of guests, from midwives looking to improve their ability to work with patients who have undergone FGM, to volunteers from a variety of women’s right organisations, keen to expand their existing knowledge.

We began with a simple introduction to FGM, and the health complications that can occur during and after the procedure, by Joy Clarke, an FGM Lead Specialist from the Antenatal Clinic at Whittington Health. Hodo Ali, a survivor of FGM, and Clinician of Sexual Health at the NHS in North London then spoke of the importance of professionals in the healthcare industry to accurately record and document when a patient has undergone FGM, and the type of procedure they’ve suffered. She explained how one of the key channels to ending FGM is achieving accurate statistical data reports of the occurrences of FGM in the UK, rather than having to rely on estimates.

We were then fortunate enough to hear from Leyla Hussein, lead campaigner against FGM, creator of BAFTA-nominated documentary ‘The Cruel Cut’, and founder of the Dahlia Project. Having heard the physical consequences of FGM, Leyla spoke of the other side; the emotional and psychological consequences. She spoke passionately about the sense of betrayal many women feel from their families, and how the Dahlia Project is a support group for women who have undergone FGM. It is a place where either in group or one-to-one sessions, women can begin to understand and cope with the emotional effects of FGM.

The highlight of the workshop for me then came with Alimatu Dimonkene’s testimony of her FGM experience. She spoke bravely of the psychological impact the procedure had on her, and the importance of the Dahlia Project in helping her realise that her FGM had been the cause of her depression and persistent flashbacks. To see an FGM survivor talk so openly and confidently about her experience was a real testament to the success of the Dahlia Project. She and Leyla both expressed the importance of health professionals opening up the conversation about FGM with their patients. They explained how training was essential so that professionals could be informed enough to ask the question, in the right way, of whether a woman has undergone FGM. This contributed to Hodo Ali’s argument of the important role healthcare professionals play in the campaign to end FGM, and overall how raising awareness of FGM can have a positive impact in fighting both its causes and consequences. 

After a coffee break, Heather Vaccianna, Anti-Bullying Coordinater and Home Safe Domestic Violence Prevention Officer spoke about FGM prevention, and her role working in schools to raise awareness amongst children. She explained her role of providing educational talks on FGM in schools across Islington, for a variety of ages, but stressed the importance that a legal change was still needed to put FGM education on the national curriculum, and make these presentations compulsory and on a rolling basis. At present, Heather explained how she has to be invited into schools to talk about FGM, and therefore some of the estimated 20,000 girls at risk of FGM are not receiving this education. Furthermore, she and all of the speakers throughout the day expressed how FGM is a UK issue, an issue for men and women, whether they themselves are at risk or not. This is therefore why education of FGM should be compulsory in all schools, and not just dependent on a broad-thinking headmaster. Heather finally explained how like Hodo Ali’s presentation on the importance of healthcare professionals being informed and trained in how to deal with FGM, that all members of school staff should receive training on the warning signs that a girl at risk of FGM may present, and what to do if they suspect a girl is in danger.

Finally, the most interesting part of ‘The Cruel Cut’ workshop was when the opportunity came for the audience to ask the morning’s panel of speakers any questions they had. With such a variety of anti-FGM experts the discussion really hit the most complex issues that arise in preventing FGM. What resonated most with me was when Dexter Dias, human rights barrister and researcher at Harvard and Cambridge stated how FGM was almost the biggest human rights violation happening in the UK, yet so little was being done to stop it, and so few people knew enough about it. We at the workshop were already the converts, actively learning about and supporting the fight against FGM - what is important is to keep spreading this awareness, and educating the whole of the UK. Alimatu Dimonkene told the story of a Welsh friend of hers, who married a Kenyan man, and whose three children therefore became victims of FGM. The UK is a multi-cultural society, and FGM is not just the issue of those who it happens to, but it is everyone’s issue.

I would urge anyone, no matter how little existing knowledge they have of FGM to take up the opportunity to go to an event like this. The speakers are engaging, the issues fascinating, and it is a wonderful chance to meet interesting people, and learn about this huge, yet invisible scar, so many British women are living with today.

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Author biography: I am a 20 year old Economic History student at the London School of Economics. I first became aware of FGM a year ago, volunteering for the LSE Student Union Amnesty International Society.