Tips on Writing a Letter to Your Legislator or Government Official

Sahiyo has been seeing an increase in the number of individuals sending letters to their legislators or government officials regarding their concern that FGC or khatna is occurring in their community. These letters, written by Bohra women anonymously or with their name, have been circulating the social media streams, particularly on Whatsapp.  

Sahiyo would like to applaud these women for their brave efforts of informing and asking for help from the legal and political entities within their communities. Legislators highly value letters and emails from their constituents. Letters are a great way to express your personal connection to an issue while conveying your opinion.

To others out there who might be considering doing something similar, Sahiyo would like to provide some useful tips on how to write an impactful letter to a legislator or government official.

Tips:

  • The Letter should be addressed to a specific individual
  • State your name, profession, and how you are connected to the legislator (for instance, do you reside in their district?)
  • State the aim or objective of the letter (for instance, are you opposing a bill?)
  • Include a personal story showing your connection to the issue and how it might affect you, your family, and your community
  • Include any statistics from reputable sources on the topic in the letter
  • Make a particular request – what are you hoping your legislator will do? (for example, do you want them to vote yes or no on a bill?)
  • Thank your legislator or government official
  • Include your contact information – both your name and address on your letter and envelope
  • Keep your letter to one page
  • Use a reasoned and respectful tone in the letter

Below are some link to sample letters:

If you have further questions or would like support in drafting your letters, please do e-mail us at info@sahiyo.com

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Sahiyo Receives ‘Daughter of Maharashtra’ Award from Nari Samata Manch

Nari Samata Manch has been working on gender issues for last 30 years. Gender-based violence is the core area of Nari Samata Manch work. The organization has institutionalized an award ‘Daughter of Maharashtra’ to honor women who have contributed significantly for the cause of gender equality.

The name of the award is a byproduct of a documentary project that Nari Samata Manch undertook titled, ‘Daughters of Maharashtra’ which captured the contributions of women of Maharashtra in different fields. The Maharashtra Foundation funded the project and so this award was named after the foundation and the documentary.

This year, Nari Smata Manch has felicitated ‘Sahiyo’ for its contributions to build a dialogue around the practice of khatna or FGC.

 

#NoMoreKhatna: Highlights from Sahiyo’s animated Twitter chat on FGC

On July 7, 2016, we at Sahiyo hosted our first Twitter chat on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from our Twitter handle, @sahiyo2016.

The need for an online debate on this subject evolved for various reasons. For the past several months, Dawoodi Bohras on social media have been increasingly vocal about their varied views on female khatna. Then in May, a 17-year-old girl died in Egypt because of excessive bleeding caused by circumcision – a tragic reminder of the dangers of FGC even among cultures not known to practice severe forms of cutting. Finally, the controversy over khatna intensified in June, when prestigious news magazine The Economist published a shocking, irresponsible editorial advocating for the allowance of milder, medicalised forms of FGC.

Bohras, who predominantly practice Type 1 FGC – removal of the clitoral hood – were clearly divided on this issue and the time seemed ripe to have a debate on khatna on a platform as public and democratic as Twitter.

We used the hashtag #NoMoreKhatna for the Twitter chat, inviting anyone and everyone to participate – and overall, we can say that the chat was a success. A large number of individuals and prominent organisations joined in to make their voices heard, and we are thankful to all of them.

Twitter Logo poster

Most importantly, the chat included the voices of several Dawoodi Bohras who believe khatna must be practiced. Many of them took the trouble of creating new Twitter accounts to participate in this discussion, and their voices helped to showcase the challenges involved in changing social norms around khatna.

We began the chat with a set of basic questions: What is FGC? What are its types? What have you experienced or heard about Bohra khatna? What are the health consequences of FGC? The responses that emerged also led to other discussions.

We asked participants about the reasons given for the practice of FGC, and multiple points were brought up.

Unsurprisingly, the question of whether milder forms of FGC should be allowed – whether the practice should be treated as a medical procedure – sparked animated debate on the Twitter chat.

Another controversial aspect of the debate, of course, is the matter of a child’s consent and whether parents have the right to decide whether their daughter should be cut.

While these tweets are just excerpts from a much larger Twitter discussion held on July 7, you can read more about how the chat went by going through Sahiyo’s Twitter handle (@sahiyo2016) and the hashtag #NoMoreKhatna.

The chat helped us understand the challenges that lie ahead for all the women and men working to bring an end to khatna: even though any form of female genital cutting is non-consensual and a violation of a child’s universal human rights, the practice is steeped in faith and religion and there is a danger of khatna becoming medicalised in the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Fortunately, the Twitter discussion did not end after the two hours scheduled for the chat – it is encouraging to see that the debate continues even today!

To see the entire Twitter conversation on Storify, click here – https://storify.com/sahiyo2015/getting-started

Sahiyo heads to Senegal for Tostan Training Centre

 

Sahiyo is pleased to announce that Mariya and Shaheeda will be attending the upcoming Tostan Training Centre (TTC) in Senegal this July as Orchid Project Fellows.

Over the past 25 years, Tostan has witnessed positive social transformation in thousands tostan-logoof communities in eight African countries. Although contributing to the abandonment of FGC was not one of Tostan’s original goals, it has become a rallying point for social change. So far over 7,200 communities from Djibouti, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal, Somalia, and The Gambia have publicly declared their decision to abandon both FGC and child/forced marriage. As Tostan has always explained and as their external evaluations have shown, public declarations are critical in the process for total abandonment and necessary for building critical mass, eventually leading FGC to becoming a thing of the past.

They are now offering individuals and organizations the opportunity to learn from their decades of experience in leading human rights-based education programs. The TTC  is designed to provide the theoretical and practical backing that people working in community development can use to reflect upon their own practices and better realize their communities’ aspiration

Their unique set of of trainings use a participatory, learner-centered approach that draws its strength from the expertise of trainers with extensive experience in rural Africa, implementing the Tostan Community Empowerment Program. Their trainings serve individuals and groups who share a commitment to human dignity, transformative learning, holistic empowerment, and collective action.

When asked about what learnings they hoped to gain from attending the TTC training, Mariya and Shaheeda provided the following replies:

Mariya: I have spoken to Molly Melching about visiting Tostan to learn for years since I firstphoto (3) learned of Tostan’s existence and since I first became interested in addressing FGC within the Dawoodi Borha community (the community I was raised in). On a personal level, it will feel like a huge accomplishment to finally witness how a successful program operates to end human rights violations. On a professional level, I hope that the training will help guide the direction that Sahiyo takes to form its own programs in India and amongst diaspora Indian communities. I also hope to be able to connect with other, more experienced, and knowledgeable individuals who can serve as mentors or advisors for Sahiyo as we plan the activities of our nascent organization.

Shaheeda picShaheeda: I am very interested in learning about the success of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in driving community-led change on human rights and gender-based violations. I want to understand how the CEP model employs diverse concepts of Health, Hygiene, Peace & Security, Problem-Solving, Literacy etc. for creating a holistic activities to engage with the local communities. From the research perspective, I am especially keen to explore and learn about the monitoring and evaluation methods for measuring program success and communication strategies employed by Tostan for creating a dialogue on change. Lastly, I want to understand the complexities that Tostan faces in terms of program implementation, as we would like to be able to predict and preempt similar problems that might arise during the course of Sahiyo’s work in India.
Sahiyo looks forward to hearing back from Mariya and Shaheeda after the training! Stay tuned to our blog to learn more about their experiences as well!

#NoMoreKhatna – Join Sahiyo on a Twitter Chat about FGC!

Sahiyo will be hosting a Twitter Conversation on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) to be held TwitterChat_#55aceewith pattern.pngon Thursday, July 7th from 6:00- 8:00 PM IST for India; 2:30-4.30 PM for Egypt; 8:30-10:30 AM EST for the United States.

We will be moderating the discussion from the Sahiyo Twitter handle (@sahiyo2016) and will be using the hashtag #NoMoreKhatna to carry on the conversation.

 With the recent and unfortunate occurrence of an Egyptian girl dying from “female circumcision” and the article by the Economist advocating milder forms of FGC, there is an urgent need to point out that all forms of FGC must be banned.

We have seen within the Dawoodi Bohra community, how these misconceptions and misbeliefs are being used as justifications for the Bohra community to continue FGC, by “othering” these mild forms of FGC as something separate, different, and okay from the severe forms of FGC. Please see the Guardian article “The Economist prompts outrage as it backs ‘minor FGM’” to learn more.

Sahiyo asks you to join this discussion on Twitter even if it can only be for 10 minutes so that your voice is also heard in opposition to FGC.

Hope you can join us!

Sahiyo receives IAWRT grant to conduct media workshop in Mumbai

IAWRTlogo-fb3Sahiyo is delighted to announce that our organization was awarded a grant by the International Association of Women in Radio and Television ( IAWRT, www.iawrt.org) to conduct a media training workshop in Mumbai, this August.

Media has played a crucial role in informing people at large about the practice of female genital cutting or khatna In India and bringing this critical issues to the forefront. Yet, we have also seen how facts on FGC within the Bohra community have been misunderstood or misportrayed by journalists, leading to unintentional harm to survivors and those women and girls who might be at risk. This media workshop will then allow Sahiyo to have a dialogue with the media on how to approach the topic of khatna or FGC in a culturally sensitive, non-sensationalized portrayal.  

We wish to empower the media about the nuances of FGC practiced by the Dawoodi Bohra community, provide resources to the media about how to report on gender violence in a beneficial way, as well as speak of the challenges FGC activists have encountered or are likely to encounter in this line of work.

The media training workshop in August will be Sahiyo’s first workshop of this kind in Mumbai. Watch our website for more details.

Sahiyo Receives Grant from Wallace Global Fund!

WGF-Logo-e13987852632781Sahiyo is excited to announce that the Wallace Global Fund has awarded a $30,000 grant to Orchid Project, as support for the organizational setup of Sahiyo. The Orchid Project has a vision of a world free from FGC and Sahiyo is a transnational organization with the mission to empower Dawoodi Bohra and other Asian communities to end FGC and create positive social change through dialogue, education and collaboration based on community involvement. Both Orchid Project and Sahiyo want to put Asian communities on the map of areas affected by FGC.

Sahiyo’s founding group includes a social worker, a researcher, two filmmakers and a journalist, all of whom had already been speaking out, in their own ways, against the practice of khatna or FGC. As the collaboration grew, Sahiyo’s founders realized the need for an organized, informed forum within the community that could help drive a movement to bring an end to FGC. That is how Sahiyo, the organization, was born. Sahiyo is the Bohra Gujarati word for ‘saheliyo’, or friends, and reflects our organization’s mission to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution towards ending the practice of FGC.

For generations, the practice was clouded in secrecy, and thus a first goal of Sahiyo’s was to break the silence shrouding the continuation of the practice. In July 2015, Sahiyo launched an exploratory online survey to understand the purpose, extent and impact of khatna among Bohras. The survey was created with inputs from experts like Dr. Gerry Mackie, Molly Melching (Tostan), and members of the German-Iraqi NGO Wadi. More than 400 women completed the survey in the six months that the survey was open. Preliminary results indicated that close to 80% of respondents stated that khatna was performed on them. Survey results also showed a definite need for community awareness and engagement programs to bring the subject of FGC out of the realm of secrecy and promote discussions about its adverse effects. As a result Sahiyo began community mobilization to end FGC by engaging in the following activities: peer-to-peer counselling, storytelling and undertaking extensive online outreach programs through various public awareness and advocacy campaigns.

With support from the Wallace Global Fund, Sahiyo is moving towards the development of sustainable programs that can both strengthen Sahiyo organizationally and increase our capacity to work on FGC in a meaningful way.

Thank you Wallace Global Fund for your support!

Underground in America: Female Genital Cutting

160610_vod_fgm_mariya_16x9_992On June 22, 2016, Sahiyo’s cofounder, Mariya Taher came out on camera to discuss FGC in the United States and the work she has been doing to support other women and girls who are at-risk or who have undergone FGC and are living in this country. Her work into this area of gender violence began in 2008 when she started her Master of Social Work program at San Francisco University and decided to research FGC amongst immigrant communities living in the United States. Her motivation for pursuing this topic – she had undergone it herself at seven years old and understood the complexities involved with the practice. She understood that FGC was viewed as an obligatory social norm in the communities that practiced it and that it would be a challenge to help communities understand that this tradition was in fact, a form of gender violence, illegal in the United States, and against many existing human rights conventions. In 2015, she helped ABC news shed light on this practice by participating anonymously in their multimedia news piece, “Underground in America: Female Genital Mutilation”.  The short video in the piece was subsequently nominated for a Webby Award in the category of Individual Short or Episode. Then in 2016, as the work of Sahiyo became more public and widespread, she showed her face on camera in the follow-up piece produced by ABC News, “Underground: Risk of FGM Increasing for Women in the U.S.”, says CDC.

When asked why – “It took me eight years to decide to reveal my face on camera. I had researched and written about FGC in print for years, but revealing your face on camera is very different. It meant my personal life and professional life were enmeshing and I knew it also meant that my family could be on the receiving end of backlash from their religious community, and from others who did not understand the complexities of power and control when it comes to gender violence. I also understood that not everyone is able to come out and publicly speak out against it and there are many reasons that range from fear, concern for friends and family members, legal reasons, not wanting to be viewed as a victim, and more. They are all valid reasons. I had taken many years to work through all of the potential unintended consequences of speaking openly, and I knew that I had finally reached a place where I could be a support for others, and because I am a social worker, I had the knowledge and background of working in social services to understand how to go about creating them for women and girls at risk for or who had undergone FGC. This is what I hope to do and this is why I revealed my face on camera.

 

No, even ‘symbolic’ or ‘mild’ female genital cutting is NOT okay

Should mild forms of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) be legalised? Should supposedly “harmless” nicking or slicing of clitoral tissue be medicalised, simply because getting communities to completely stop FGC happens to be a very difficult task?

There has always been some support for mild, medicalised FGC, chiefly from communities that claim to practice female “circumcision” and see it as completely different and divorced from any form of genital “mutilation”. And for years, this view has been firmly refuted by survivors and activists who don’t want any girl to experience the trauma, betrayal and potential harm that even the least severe forms of FGC can cause.

But recently, support for mild, “symbolic” genital cutting came from the most unexpected source – The Economist, a prestigious weekly news magazine headquartered in London.

In an editorial on June 18, titled ‘An agonising choice’, The Economist presented a baffling argument: since global campaigns to bring about a “blanket ban on FGM” have been unsuccessful for 30 years, it is “time to try a new approach”, in which governments could ban the “worst forms” of genital cutting and instead “persuade” parents to choose the “least nasty version”.

“However distasteful, it is better to have a symbolic nick from a trained health worker than to be butchered in a back room by a village elder,” the article says.

As was to be expected, The Economist has since faced some much-deserved backlash from indignant survivors and activists. Several NGOs and media publications have termed The Economist’s stand as irresponsible, and UK-based NGO Orchid Project has also started a petition to get the magazine to withdraw the article.

But a disturbing response – in praise of the irresponsible article – has emerged from some quarters of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

The Bohras predominantly practice the “mild” forms of FGC that The Economist has advocated for – slicing off the prepuce or clitoral hood, and in some cases, nicking or pricking of the prepuce. And in the past few days, some Bohras began to circulate Whatsapp messages amongst themselves claiming that “for the first time, a prestigious paper writes something in our favour, and has challenged WHO and the anti-FGM lobbyists”. (Even The Guardian has mentioned this response from conservative Bohras in its report on the negative impact of The Economist’s article.)

In this context, it is more vital than ever for us in the Dawoodi Bohra community to speak out against such misguided views. Should activists like us agree to “compromise” for the sake of respecting cultural traditions? Should we condemn female genital “mutilation” – the severe forms that involve cutting the whole clitoris and more – while condoning female “circumcision”? Should we say it is okay for Bohras and other communities to let medical professionals snip off a mere little pinch of skin from a little girl’s clitoral prepuce?

Our answer is a resounding NO.

Even the mildest, most “symbolic” type of female genital cutting is a form of gender violence. A significantly large number of Bohras cut their 7-year-old daughters because they believe it is a means of controlling a woman’s sexuality. If a girl is not circumcised, they say, she will have stronger sexual urges and she is likely to have pre-marital or exra-marital affairs. What is this if not blatant patriarchy, which denies women a right to their own bodies and attempts to police her “character”?

Then there is a growing section of Bohras who claim that the circumcision they practice is merely “clitoral unhooding”, a procedure that they claim enhances sexual pleasure by exposing the clitoral glans. There are many things wrong with this argument. One, clitoral unhooding is a medical procedure that some adult, sexually active women can choose to undergo if they have excessive prepuce tissue that happens to interfere with orgasms, whereas “circumcision” is done on all young, sexually inexperienced girls, without their consent,even if their prepuce tissue is not excessive. Unnecessary removal of the clitoral hood could leave the clitoris vulnerable to abrasions or over-stimulation.

But the other major issue with promoting “unhooding” is the supposed reason behind it. Altering a little girl’s genitals in order to “enhance” her adult sexual life is also a form of trying to control a woman’s body without her consent. Once again, it amounts to gender-based violence.

Of course, there are also Bohras who claim female circumcision is done for religious “purity” and cleanliness. This is laughable. In a community that places so much emphasis on taharat (hygeine) and washing one’s genitals thoroughly during “istinja”, do we really need to cut off a little bit of natural skin tissue simply in the name of cleanliness? The argument simply doesn’t stand.

If The Economist and its supporters believe that “mild” FGC is so harmless, then why do it at all? What is so repulsive about that little tip of God-given skin that entire communities are willing to fight the tides of progressive change in order to retain their culture of snipping it off? Why do these communities choose to dismiss the voices of the women who have suffered physically, psychologically and sexually because of these very “mild” cuts? Why do communities insist on getting into a girl’s underpants instead of staying out of them?

Ultimately, one cannot escape the fact that any form of FGC is an attempt to control women’s bodies and, by extension, their minds and beings. Allowing supposedly symbolic FGC to continue will not solve this problem.

And finally, a word on The Economist’s defeatist attitude: did anyone really expect a deep-rooted practice like FGC to come to a complete halt after just 30 years of campaigning? If social change were possible that quickly, America wouldn’t be struggling with racism 50 after the Civil Rights movement, India would not be seeing rabid casteism nearly 70 years after Independence, and women wouldn’t still be fighting for their most basic rights.

If we opt for compromise simply because the fight for an FGC-free world is so exhausting, we would be failing future generations of little girls who will continue to be violated without their consent.

Call to action: You can make your voice heard by signing Orchid Project’s petition against The Economist’s irresponsible stand. Sign the petition here.