Massachusetts Senate passes FGM/C bill

BOSTON, MA – July 30, 2020 – Sahiyo would like to thank the President of the Massachusetts Senate, Karen Spilka, and bill sponsor Senator Joe Boncore (D-First Suffolk and Middlesex) for the passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)” in Massachusetts. The FGM/C bill had a favorable vote in a formal session of the Senate, after it passed in the House on July 16th. Governor Charlie Baker will have 10 days to sign the bill. 

Survivors Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf, and activist Hanna Stern created a change.org petition to plead with the Massachusetts state legislature to protect young girls in Massachusetts from being cut by making FGM/C illegal. Taher, in particular, was praised by Senator Boncore for her work and advocacy on the issue. Taher has worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts independently, and on behalf of Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, of which she is the U.S. Executive Director and co-founder. Senator Boncore also recognized Sahiyo for their work on advocating for the abandonment of FGM/C. A member of the legislative working group, Joanne Golden, is also a member of the U.S. Advisory Board for Sahiyo. 

On June 16th, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted favorably to pass the bill. The FGM/C bill not only has bipartisan support, but also bicameral support, with over 100 Senate and House cosigners of the original bills (H3332, H1466). The bill has also been supported by almost 50 organizations, including The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, the AHA Foundation, UNICEF USA, the U.S. End FGM/C Network, Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, Office of the Child Advocate, Caucus of Women Legislators, American Academy of Pediatrics – Massachusetts Chapter, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – Massachusetts section, and Sahiyo, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girl’s healthy genitals and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, including the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. There are no health benefits to this practice. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the U.S. have been cut or are at risk of FGM/C. Over fourteen thousand such women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. Last session, the Joint Judiciary Committee heard unequivocal testimony from survivors that FGM/C happens in the U.S., and that girls born in Massachusetts are at risk.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning FGM/C,  including during the shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, and we respectfully urge Governor Baker to sign bill H4606 into law so that Massachusetts can become number 39. In November 2019, a U.S. District court struck down the federal law making FGM/C illegal, finding that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. constitution, and that FGM/C is a violent crime that must be regulated by the states. Top Massachusetts law enforcement officials testified last September that existing state criminal laws would not cover FGM/C. The Department of Children and Families considers FGM/C a form of child abuse. Massachusetts must act to stop this practice.

Thank you to Senate President Spilka and House Speaker DeLeo, and our House and Senate bill sponsors for your leadership, support, and action on such an important issue of women and girl child rights.

Volunteer Spotlight: Programs Intern Hunter Kessous

Hunter Kessous is currently an undergraduate at Brandeis University studying Biology, Health: Science Society and Policy, and French. She has been passionate about ending female genital cutting (FGC) ever since she first learned of the practice. Hunter aspires to be a gynecologist and perform reconstructive surgeries for survivors of FGC. Hunter is also a student researcher on an FGC project. She joined Sahiyo in May. 

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first connected with Sahiyo when I reached out for help with my research project on the movement to abandon FGC. Mariya, one of the co-founders, asked if I would like to volunteer for the summer. When the pandemic started, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get involved. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to work on the Sahiyo team remotely.

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

I’m a programs intern, which means I am planning webinars. My big project at the moment is a webinar on FGC and education. The topic was inspired by my own experiences with how FGC is taught at my university. I also attend as many webinars as possible in order to learn what information is currently out there, and to see how other webinars are formatted. 

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Before my internship with Sahiyo, I read and learned a lot about FGC. Even still, in just the first month of volunteering, I have learned so much more than I anticipated. I’m eager to continue broadening my knowledge and understanding of FGC through my work with Sahiyo. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful anti-FGC advocates and survivors. The movement to abandon FGC consists of a close network, and I am thrilled to join the community and have the opportunity to work with so many inspiring people. 

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

For every moment you spend working with Sahiyo, you will feel that you are doing something important and worthwhile. You will meet empowering, wonderful people from inside and outside of the Sahiyo team that will make you feel supported and essential to the cause. I encourage anybody interested in joining the Sahiyo team to do so!

Understanding the effect of COVID-19 on gender-based violence in Nigeria

By Hunter Kessous

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hidden Scars and Magool have teamed up to offer biweekly webinars that amplify the voices of the grassroots organizations working to protect girls and women at this time. On June 9th, the third installment of the Africa Led Movement series addressed the effect of the pandemic on gender-based violence (GBV) in Nigeria, including female genital cutting (FGC).

Co-hosts Bethel Tadesse of Hidden Scars and Leyla Hussein of Magool led with discussion questions. The three speakers were overflowing with passion and knowledge. It seemed to me they often found it difficult to focus their response on the specific question they were asked, as there was clearly an overwhelming amount of information they wanted to share. The fervent speakers included Clare Henshaw, Girls Inspired Africa and i-Safe Consulting; Hassana Umoru Maina, The ABCs of Sexual Violence Campaign; and Kolawole Olatosimi, Child and Youth Protection Foundation

One thing I learned in this webinar is that only in the West is FGC discussed as a separate issue from gender-based violence (GBV). For example, when I hear people talking about GBV, I would not assume they are including FGC in that definition. This might be because Americans and Europeans may be less familiar with FGC. Halfway through the webinar, I was confused why FGC had not been discussed yet. It was explained to me that they were including FGC in their definition of GBV. Other Americans and Europeans in the audience shared my “aha” moment. FGC is a form of gender-based violence, and I think Westerners should shift our viewpoint to that of the advocates in this webinar. 

Having attended a few webinars since the start of the pandemic, I have learned that COVID-19 has led to an increase in GBV. However, activists Hassana and Clare claim GBV has not increased; it is just being noticed more now that women and girls are stuck at home. Hassana says rape and violence against girls has been a pandemic for much longer than COVID-19. Kolawole noted that safe spaces have been taken from girls as a result of schools being closed in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

A recurring theme throughout the interviews that all speakers addressed was the culture of silence that perpetuates GBV. Clare says that in order to end this culture, it is important that all of the NGOs in Nigeria work together. Apparently, there is a lack of coordination, and all organizations must “speak the same language with the same voice” in order to make change. Hassana posited making sexual violence part of the mainstream discussion so that the conversation is ongoing, as opposed to only mentioned when something bad happens. Another action item is promoting sexual education in all Nigerian schools. Finally, Kolowole explained that Nigeria has laws against GBV, but these laws need to be domesticated. At the current moment, these laws are not being enforced. 

The full recording of this webinar can be found here.

How COVID-19 impacts programs devoted to ending gender-based violence, including female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, so it is unsurprising that gender-based violence (GBV), including female genital cutting (FGC), has also been affected. Hidden Scars and Magool came together to co-host the Africa Led Movement Webinar series. In May, I had the pleasure of attending the second part of the series which addressed GBV during the current pandemic. 

Speakers included Bethel Tadesse, Hidden Scars; Leyla Hussein, Magool; Wanjiru Wahome, Samburu Girls Foundation; Christine Alfons, Safe Engage Foundation; and Domtila Chesang, I Am Responsible Foundation (I Rep Foundation)

Three panelists, Wahome, Alfons and Chesang, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their work. Wahome and Chesang have both noticed an increase in GBV, specifically FGC, rape, and domestic violence. They add that the Kenyan government has forcibly closed all safe houses, sending thousands of girls back to their homes. Coupled with the closure of schools and the restriction of movement, more girls and women are stuck in places where they are not safe or comfortable. Additionally, it seems as if GBV may be the least of the government’s priorities in Kenya, as all resources and focus are currently being devoted to the pandemic. Alfons noted that in her region of Kenya, FGC only occurs every two years. Therefore, FGC is not rising in cases at the moment, but child marriage has increased significantly. 

The panelists were asked how their organizations have responded to the rise in violence prompted by the pandemic. All three are using the radio as a tool to prevent FGC by interviewing healthcare professionals and community leaders on air and playing jingles to remind listeners not to cut their girls. Upon hearing the devastating news of the closed rescue houses, I was relieved to hear that Wahome and Chesang have been going door-to-door to check on the girls they had to send back home. Alfons has been working to get girls sanitary products. Additionally, Alfons’ volunteers are making masks and supplying them to at-risk girls and women. 

In a vulnerable moment, they spoke with honesty about how the pandemic has personally impacted them. They shared the sentiment that their work has been frustrating and emotionally draining. I’m certain many advocactes would agree when Chesang stated this is not a job; it is personal, and you take it with you wherever you go. Alfons relies on other activists to stay sane. The panelists were asked what gives them hope to continue, and I found Wahome’s answer to be particularly poignant. She says when a girl is rescued, at the time she is viewed as a wife, but within a few months she transforms back into a child. 

Finally, the panelists shared what their asks would be if they could ask anything at all of the viewers. Chesang wishes for a car, or even just fuel, to allow her to visit at-risk girls and women more easily and more often. Wahome’s organization is in need of food to take the girls, as the virus has left many families without any income. Alfonso asks for sanitary pads, food, and assistance in building a website to better spread their message and work. If any readers can offer assistance, please visit their websites (linked above) or reach out to Bethel Tadesse for contact information. 

The webinar ended with an important call to action: keep amplifying the voices of the grassroots organizations working to end FGC and GBV. For more information on how the virus is impacting programs devoted to ending FGC and GBV, read here.

Massachusetts House passes FGM/C bill

July 16, 2020 – The Massachusetts House of Representatives has just voted favorably in an informal session to pass a bill to protect girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). H.4606 – An Act Relative to the Penalties for the Crime of Female Genital Mutilation will now go to the Senate floor for a vote. 

Survivors Mariya Taher, Aisha Yusuf, and activist Hanna Stern created a change.org petition to plead with the Massachusetts state legislature to protect young girls in Massachusetts from being cut by making illegal FGM/C. Taher has worked with the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts independently and on behalf of Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, of which she is the U.S. Executive Director and co-founder. 

Sahiyo, along with Taher, Yusuf and Stern, would like to thank the Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Robert A. DeLeo, and bill sponsors State Representatives Jay Livingstone (D-8th Suffolk), Natalie Higgins (D-4th Worcester), and Brad Jones (R-20th Middlesex, House Minority Leader) for today’s passage of bill H4606 “An Act Relative to the Penalties for the crime of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)” in Massachusetts. 

The FGM bill has not only bipartisan support, but also bicameral support, with over 100 Senate and House cosigners of the original bills (H3332, H1466). The bill has also been supported by almost 50 organizations, including The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts, U.S. End FGM/C Network, Sahiyo, UNICEF USA, Boston Mayor’s Office of Women’s Advancement, Office of the Child Advocate, Caucus of Women Legislators, American Academy of Pediatrics – Massachusetts Chapter, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – Massachusetts section, to name only a few. 

FGM/C is defined by the World Health Organization as removal of all or part of a girls’ healthy sex organs and surrounding tissue for non-medical reasons, often resulting in serious health consequences, the risk of death in childbirth, and lifelong trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control, half a million women and girls living in the United States have been cut or are at risk of FGM/C. Over fourteen thousand such women and girls reside in Massachusetts, which ranks as 12th in the nation for at-risk populations. Last legislative session, the Joint Judiciary Committee heard unequivocal testimony from survivors that FGM/C happens in the U.S. and that girls born in Massachusetts are at risk.

Thirty-eight states have already passed laws banning FGM/C including during the shutdown for the COVID19 pandemic, and with your immediate action by the Massachusetts Legislature and Governor Baker, Massachusetts can become number 39. We do not want our state to be a destination for FGM/C. In November 2019, a U.S. District court struck down the federal law making FGM/C illegal, finding that Congress exceeded its authority under the U.S. constitution, and that FGM/C is a violent crime that must be regulated by the states. Top Massachusetts law enforcement officials testified last September that existing state criminal laws would not cover FGM/C. The Department of Children and Families considers FGM/C a form of child abuse. Massachusetts must act to stop this practice.

We respectfully urge all to support this legislation and take the necessary steps immediately to send it to the Senate floor for a vote before the end of the session on July 31st. 

Sahiyo is dedicated to empowering Asian communities to end female genital cutting (FGC) and create positive social change. By working towards an FGC-free world, we aim to recognize and emphasize the values of consent and a child’s/woman’s right over her own body. We aim to enable a culture in which female sexuality is not feared or suppressed but embraced as normal.

The Women’s Bar Association of Massachusetts (WBA) has over 1500 members and was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1978 with a goal to achieve the full and equal participation of women in the legal profession and in a just society. It is one of the oldest and largest women’s bar associations in the country.

photo by Lëa-Kim Châteauneuf

 

 

Voices Series: Why I create art that evokes hope for survivors of FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Musfira Shaffi

Working on this project was challenging in many ways. Anyone reading Rhobi’s words will immediately be struck by the strength and bravery in her story. My job was to merely complement it with imagery that would evoke a similar visceral reaction in the viewer.

The responsibility of effectively conveying the sensitive subject matter is one that I struggled with, which is why I chose collage as a technique for visual storytelling. I wanted to fuse the private and the public, which is why I paired archival images from Rhobi’s childhood with royalty-free stock imagery, in order to depict the universality of her story. I used a severe palette of red, black and grey to affirm the physical and psychological trauma of female genital cutting.

Rhobi’s story is in equal parts heartbreaking and exhilarating, which, in turn, inspired me to create a moving allegory that would evoke memory, violence, and finally, hope. 

 

What I learned about FGC at Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat

By Anonymous

I first heard about female genital cutting (FGC) from a close friend who had undergone the practice. When I heard about it, I was around ten years old. I was shocked, but didn’t have enough information to understand the weight of the problem. Since then, I’ve learned a lot more about the issue, as it’s become more prominent in the media. I wanted to take a step further in joining the activism. The main reason I attended Sahiyo’s Virtual Activist Retreat was to learn more about the activism, and the stories about how it’s affected my community.

There were two sessions that stood out to me. The first being the Speaker Series where we learned about the neurological and psychological effects of FGC, which includes post-traumatic stress disorder. The Speaker Series, paired with the information I learned in the classroom, gave me a new perspective on how big of an issue this is in my community. The second session that stood out to me was the simulation exercise. It provided me with an example of how to talk about the issue at hand in a respectful, yet effective manner.

At the moment, I am attending sessions with members I have met during the retreat, but I hope to soon make a difference by using the skills that I have to create more awareness, not only in my community, but other communities, as well.

Why human rights education, including FGC, is crucial for American classrooms

By Hunter Kessous

Throughout high school, whenever I would tell people about my future goals to help survivors of female genital cutting (FGC), nine times out of ten the response would be, “What is FGC?” This is a question I never minded. As a human rights advocate, I’ve always taken the opportunity to educate my friends about this topic.

I never expected that one day my peers at university would claim my desire to end the practice of FGC was neocolonialist, imperialist and simply wrong. I was shocked. I had read all about the harm that FGC causes to girls and women globally. I know, of course, that communities that practice FGC are protective of their tradition. However, I was completely unprepared to be met with hostility by my classmates. 

Soon, I noticed a trend: all of the students who were opposed to ending FGC were in the anthropology department. This left me even more puzzled—my experience with anthropology had been positive. We learned that culture is meant to grow and change over time. We learned about cultural relativism: the importance of viewing cultural practices through the lens of the culture itself. All of these things aligned with my view of FGC and approach toward abandonment. FGC is a cultural practice, but that doesn’t mean it can and should not change. Understanding the way communities that practice FGC view and justify their tradition is key to effectively encouraging abandonment of FGC. Why, then, do some anthropology students believe there should be no interventions to end FGC?

Finally, I got answers. My global health professor led a discussion about FGC in class, which quickly turned into a ferocious debate between myself and three other students. Nearly all of what they said was untrue: FGC is a religious practice; medicalization makes FGC safe; and FGC is an African practice so we should not condemn it. 

FGC is often justified with religion, but it is not technically a religious practice. It pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Medicalization does not remove many of the physical and psychological dangers of FGC. It is a global practice-–happening even within the U.S.–that we should strive toward ending by allowing those from the communities that practice FGC to lead the initiative. These simple corrections were not well-received during the debate, potentially because the anthropology professors may have refused to take a stance on FGC as a human rights violation .. Herein lies the danger: misconceptions about FGC become all the more harmful when they are propagated by trusted sources. 

My experience showed me that the accuracy of information about FGC being taught in college classrooms desperately needs to be improved. Moreover, there is a general need for increased education about FGC in American classrooms. 

Public policy in England, as well as the state of Virginia (thanks to Angela Peabody of Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation), mandate that the harms, laws, and resources surrounding FGC be taught in sexual education courses for middle and high school students. These laws are important because we are raising the next generation of advocates. By teaching about FGC in schools accurately, we are empowering young people to be knowledgeable of and speak out against a human rights violation. This can and should be done through mandating FGC education in sex education classes and improving the accuracy of it being taught in university courses. 

To learn more about FGC, common misconceptions, and the importance of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGC prevention, join Sahiyo for an educational webinar on July 30th at 1pm EST! Follow this link to learn more and register. 

Voices Series: How I found purpose through survivors' stories

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Debasmita Dasgupta

Working on this project has been life-changing. Not that I did not know about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), but talking directly to people who had to go through such traumatic experiences brought me closer to the truth. I was absolutely moved by the courage of two of the participants, who dared to speak up despite all odds. That courage is irresistible and I am sure it will continue to inspire many more souls like mine.

I feel fortunate that I could tell their stories through my art. I am delighted that my art found a purpose. I am hopeful that my art will make an attempt to light up some of the dark corners of the world, where the peril of FGM/C still exists. In solidarity!

Voices Series: Why your story is worth sharing

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Mariam Sabir 

I walked into the workshop thinking, “I should’ve just came as a volunteer, not as a participant. I don’t even have a story to tell especially since I am not a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) myself.”

Another thought was,“I am just a medical student, what insight can I give them from a health perspective when I have not even started practicing yet?”

All these anxious thoughts were left far behind within a few hours of “story circle,” which is a part of the workshop where participants sit in a circle and share their story. I cannot explain how I felt during those few hours while hearing each participant’s powerful story and bonding with such incredibly strong women. I felt humbled and honored, moved and motivated to be in the presence of such courage and passion.

When it was my turn, I was surprised at how much I wanted to say! I thought to myself, I can do this. I can do this for each and every woman who has undergone FGC and every survivor who is still struggling with its consequences. I am the future of medicine and if it doesn’t start here, then where? If there’s one place a woman should feel safe to discuss FGC, it should be with a medical professional who is expected to have some knowledge about this issue. 

Sahiyo and StoryCenter cultivated an extremely friendly and judgement-free zone with a strong sense of sisterhood: allowing everyone to feel comfortable enough to share their story. They allowed us to dig deeper to retrieve those crucial moments within our stories that relayed everything we wanted in just a few words. In addition, StoryCenter made it extremely easy to create that story in a way that matched our vision.

I hope that this blog encourages more women to come forward with their stories.

You have a story and it matters.

It will help break the circle of silence that has allowed FGC to continue under the pretense of tradition and culture.