18 March 2012

What difference do 'special days' like Anti-FGM (6th Feb) and International Women's Day (8th March) make?

The empowerment of women & girls has risen up the development agenda this decade, backed by powerful financial institutions with CSR policies; the philanthropic departments of major organisations (Vodafone and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations) and influential donors (USAID & DfID). What hope have we that this overlooked group will fulfil its potential?

On the 9th International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, we joined the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), hearing Professors Walker and Warwick set the scene. Back in the 1940s the RCOG was campaigning to eradicate ‘Pharonic’ FGM (infibulation: Type III) by encouraging ‘Sunni’ (clitoridectomy : Type I or II). This, however, meant teaching Sudanese midwives in Omdurman, Sudan – where I have worked – to perform operations where there was no need. Just as today, as the procedure is seen as necessary for preparing girls for marriage and tribal acceptance, government prohibition can push the practice underground. What is needed is changes in the roots of world view, as expressed anthropologically in beliefs, values and identity. Seventy years on, the RCOG statement, advises health practitioners on managing the care of women who have undergone FGM, including provision of obstetric and deinfibulation services. This was expounded by Sarah Creighton and Juliet Albert at the conference, as I have observed at one of the 17 African Well Women Clinics in the UK and hearing them speak at the FGM Forum which I attend, that is chaired by the Home Office.

One exciting step forward this year is the launch of the all parliamentary group on FGM. I was pleased to hear them speak at the conference and at a parliamentary reception hosted by Orchid Project. This enabled me to speak to Lynne Featherstone, Minster of Equalities; Stephen O’Brien DfID Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, as well as re-connect with old friends from the Home Office, various MPs & Peers, and representatives from the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women & Children (IAC).

The rest of day involved meeting Sister Fa, winner of the 100 Freedom to Create Award, speaking on Radio 4s Women’s Hour, before telling her story & sharing her experiences of community change affecting village abandonment of FGM in Senegal. I came away thinking a day like this can make a difference, as long as ‘talk’ is followed up with ‘action’.

International Women’s Day is no different. We took our placard, and joined the Bridge Walk. Some pretty impressive speakers, including Cherie Blair, spoke to the hundreds gathered with similar causes in mind. I also went to see the movie ‘The Whistleblower’, hosted by the FCO followed by a discussion on the government’s policy on women, peace and security. See the clip and do lobby the FCO to stop imunity for UN peacekeepers, international diplomats and Aid workers for any sexual crimes they commit with the very women & girls they are meant to be protecting.

Do days like this make a difference? Only if we individually make that ‘difference’. What are you going to do? Do ‘like’ us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!