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Discovering female genital cutting in my community

By Mariam Sabir

Country of Residence: United States

With so many issues in the world that need to be addressed, we have to pick and choose our battles, whether it may be poverty, education, inequality, or gender violence. The majority of people choose something that they can most relate to via personal or cultural experiences. With this first blog I will write about my personal journey of discovering female genital cutting (FGC) in 2011 and why it took me eight years to finally do something about it.

Bohra women

My sister is my confidant, as I am hers. I was 17 years old when my sister pulled me aside urgently to talk to me about something she could not fathom. She had just discovered FGC. I was still in high school and did not grasp the gravity of the situation. A few years later, I was sitting in my healthcare ethics course in undergrad and my professor breezed over the topic of female genital cutting. My mind started to spin. This could not possibly be what my sister was talking about? I called her immediately after class and she confirmed it. I was enraged as though I was hearing it and truly understanding it for the first time. It felt like a conspiracy. No one in the community talked about it. How many of my cousins, friends, and aunts had gone through this and had never spoken of it?

I was desperate to talk to someone about this. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to get more information. I called the first person that came to mind, my mother. I could sense her discomfort in talking about this subject. She told me it is a Bohra custom, a social norm within our community that people feel compelled to perpetuate without questioning, even by my grandmother as well. My mother admitted that it was a traumatic experience, but did not want to indulge further.

I was not satisfied. I called my aunt. My aunt is more liberal and expressive; she writes poetry and is an activist in her own ways. Surely, she would have more to say about this. She told me it was done supposedly to moderate a woman’s sexual urges to prevent premarital or extramarital affairs. To my dismay, this was the end of our conversation.

My attempt to gather information seemed like an impossible task. I did not know where to go or who to talk to, so I pushed my thoughts aside until that summer when I went back home to Dubai. I was curious to see how much Bohra men knew about this. I met up with an old Bohra friend and told him what I had discovered. He immediately said, “Well, men get it done, too.” I was disappointed. I told him that male circumcision and FGC were not equivalent, that FGC was much more psychologically and sexually damaging for a female. He continued to defend the custom saying there must be a reason why Moula (the leader of our community) recommends it. There must be a long-term benefit from the procedure that we don’t know about. I was in disbelief. How could he not think it was wrong? I was left more confused and angry after that conversation. Was I making this a bigger deal than it needs to be? Why is no one else speaking up about this?

I attended medical school and the more I learned about female anatomy, the more upset I got thinking about FGC. I felt powerless until I heard a friend talking about Sahiyo. I was shocked and relieved. It was comforting to know that I share the same views as many other women. Up until then, I felt like my emotions of anger and distrust were out of proportion and unjustified. There was finally a safe space to discuss FGC, gather information and truly understand its origins.

Through Sahiyo, I learned more about how we can create awareness and discussion about such a sensitive and taboo subject. In retrospect, I wish I had handled the conversation with my Bohra male friend differently. It was presumptuous for me to think he would understand what women went through. Afterall, it is our body, not his. I wish I had the tact and knowledge to educate him about the long-lasting effects of FGC, to tell him that it is not a small-community problem but a human rights issue. That taking a child at the age of seven and altering her anatomy forever is not okay. That depriving a woman from experiencing pleasure during sexual activity is not okay. That potentially causing severe pain and complications for women’s reproductive health is not okay. That tampering with God’s creation of a perfect body is not okay. That perpetuating patriarchal standards by continuing this practice is not okay.

All the secretiveness around this topic should be a red flag for everyone who blindly follows this practice. So let’s question it. Let’s drop the secrecy. Let’s drop the shame. Let’s create awareness. Let’s educate each other.

 

 

UNFPA launches 2020 State of the World Population Report

By Hunter Kessous

On July 30th, the United Nations Fund for Populations Activities (UNFPA) hosted a virtual event to launch the 2020 State of the World Population Report. UNFPA is the sexual and reproductive health agency of the United Nations. This year’s report titled, Against My Will, focused on three of nineteen harmful practices girls and women face: child marriage, female genital cutting (FGC), and son preference. Son preference is a symptom of gender inequality that results in harmful practices such as gender-biased sex selection and neglect of female children.

Speakers included Chrissy Houlahan, U.S. Representative; Sarah Craven, UNFPA; Sarah Hillware, Women in Global Health; Dr. Kakenya Ntaiya, Kakenya’s Dream; Jeanne Smoot, Tahirih Justice Center; and moderator Seema Jalan; UN

First to speak was U.S. Representative Houlahan who introduced the Support UNFPA Funding Act, a bill of which she is the lead author. Currently, the U.S. is withholding funding from the UNFPA for the fourth consecutive year. Houlahan calls on organizations to endorse her bill and on fellow Congress members to co-sponsor the bill in order to provide funding to the UNFPA.

Following Houlahan’s important message, Sarah Craven introduced the Against My Will report. Craven summarized the report as demanding respect for the autonomy of women and girls; demanding protection of women and girls by enacting laws and changing societal norms; and stating governments must fulfill their obligations under human rights treaties. 

Panelists Hillware, Ntaiya, and Smoot spoke on the importance of this report in the era of COVID-19. The attention of the media and policymakers is elsewhere as we grapple with the pandemic and the growing issues of police brutality. However, the virus has also increased the marginalization and vulnerability of girls and women. Reports such as this refocus attention on gender-based violence and empower us with tools to continue fighting these harmful practices. 

In response to the growing conversation about institutional racism, the panelists remarked on their organizations’ action steps. Smoot highlighted the importance of fighting all forms of oppression in order to abolish gender-based violence. Hillware calls on activists to work both internally and externally, meaning organizations should work toward intersectionality within their own staff. 

Ntaiya was asked how she walks the line of abandoning FGC in Kenya while still showing respect for the parents of the girls with whom she works. Ntaiya made an important point that FGC elimination requires all people within the community to be on board. Teaching the harms of FGC to girls in school won’t be effective if they are going home to a community that preaches an opposite viewpoint. For this reason, she works to educate parents, chiefs, health system workers, elders, and more. Ntaiya notes the need for a more holistic system for ending FGC. She provided the example that the chief may want to enforce anti-FGC laws, but lack the resources to do so such as a car to rescue girls, a hospital to take them to, etc. In addition to education for the community, we must implement other systems to make ending FGC possible.

Sahiyo address FGM/C education in webinar

On July 30th, Sahiyo teamed up with the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and The Council of the Great City Schools to host a webinar, Learning about Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) in the Classroom: The importance of nationwide education as a tool for prevention. 

FGM/C affects over 200 million girls and women globally, with many more at risk of undergoing the harmful practice each year. FGM/C can cause lifelong physical, emotional, and psychological harm, yet the public is still lacking in understanding the global scope and severity of the issue. In fact, a multitude of misconceptions surround FGM/C. In this educational webinar, we debunked common misconceptions, and explored the use of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGM/C prevention. We heard from advocates and organizations on why and how FGM/C should be taught in schools and the power of public policy to make this a reality.

Speakers included Mariya Taher, co-founder and U.S. executive director of Sahiyo; Hunter Kessous, programs intern of Sahiyo; Angela Peabody, president and founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation; Gabriela Uro, Council of the Great City Schools; and Richard Black, former Virginia senator.

Find the full recording of the webinar on YouTube here

Kessous also wrote a blog on addressing FGM/C in the college classroom

Find the full powerpoint and transcript of the webinar here.

Crave Foundation recognizes Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher as 2020 grantee

by Jenny Cordle

The Crave Foundation for Women selected Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher as one of their inaugural recipients for an individual grant in recognition for her work to end female genital cutting (FGC) in Asian communities and beyond. In 2015, she co-founded Sahiyo – United Against Female Genital Cutting, an award-winning, transnational organization with the mission to empower Asian communities to end FGC. She is one of five 2020 grantees.

The Crave Foundation acknowledges that “pleasure is a universal human right that can not be fully realized where there is injustice and violence against women.” The foundation recognizes individuals who are working in the gender-based violence areas of female genital cutting and sex trafficking. Their model is unique in that they provide no-strings-attached grants so that grantees can utilize the grants in the most appropriate way they see fit. 

“That is incredibly rare, and I’m brimming with ideas now on how to use these funds to further my work to both support survivors and prevent future generations of girls from undergoing FGC,” Taher said, who is a survivor of FGC. 

Taher’s work at Sahiyo focuses on storytelling programs and creating a critical mass of voices against FGC to “create a culture in which survivors can heal by connecting” to work toward creating a society where FGC no longer occurs.

“I’m constantly learning and adapting my work and Sahiyo programs to fit the needs of both survivors and the communities they belong to in which FGC occurs,” Taher said. “For myself, from the very beginning, I started engaging in anti-gender-based violence work because I had both lived experiences with gender-based violence, and also knew so many other individuals who also had experiences of some form of gender-based violence, whether it was female genital cutting, domestic violence, or sexual assault. I understood how both culture, society, and even one’s family could play a part in perpetuating environments in which violence occurred, and I wanted to learn how to undo that violence.”

In addition to her work at Sahiyo, Taher collaborates with the Massachusetts Women’s Bar Association on passing state legislation to criminalize FGC; an endeavor in which FGC activists and lawmakers had two victories when the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Senate recently passed bill H.4606 – An Act Relative to the Penalties for the Crime of Female Genital Mutilation. The bill is now on Governor Charlie Baker’s desk to be signed into law. Taher also creates community education and outreach programs within the state on this issue.

Taher serves on the steering committee for the U.S. End FGM/C Network. In 2018, Taher received the Human Rights Storytellers Award from the Muslim American Leadership Alliance. The Manhattan Young Democrats honored her as a 2017 Engendering Progress honoree, and ABC News did a special feature on her, entitled: Underground: American Woman Who Underwent Female Genital Mutilation Comes Forward to Help Others.

Taher has worked in the gender-based violence field for over a decade in the areas of teaching, research, policy, program development, and direct service. She has worked at Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women & Families, W.O.M.A.N., Inc., Asian Women’s Shelter, San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, San Francisco State University, and was a 2014 Women’s Policy Institute Fellow through the Women’s Foundation of California.

During her journey as an advocate, she has learned that change takes time. 

“We all want change to happen quickly particularly on issues in which violence is connected to children but being an advocate teaches you that change is slow,” Taher said. “It doesn’t mean you won’t feel frustrated, and that there won’t be days when you want to just give up. Change will come. Every time I hear a survivor share her story out loud or learn someone has forgone having the practice done on their daughter even each time that I learn an individual is joining this line of work because they want to make a difference, shows me that change is occurring and people care. All those examples give me hope, and it’s why I keep at this work.”

Sahiyo co-founders include Aarefa Johari, Priya Goswami, and Insia Dariwala.

 

Protecting the girl child: The need for an anti-FGM law in India 

By Anjali Shah

“Girls are not property. They have the right to determine their destiny.” – Anthony Lake, Former Executive Director, UNICEF

Religious dogmas have gained focus with women coming forward to challenge the subversion and repression that they have been subjected to for decades. This has brought into the limelight the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), which thrives in the shadows of our society with little recognition. It is the fear of social exclusion that has prevented women from lifting the veil of secrecy, resulting in more girls being victimized. 

Some women of the Bohra Muslim community, where FGM is widely practiced, have justified FGM to be their religious and cultural right. However, a practice that demands such standards of purity from girls and women so as to remove a part of their body to curb their sexuality raises important questions pertaining to their right to live with dignity, equality, bodily integrity, and also their right to freedom from inhumane treatment.

It may be argued that FGM can be practised under Article 25 of the Constitution of India that guarantees the right to religious freedom. However, this is not an unfettered right but is subject to the constitutional restraints of public order, health and morality. The content of morality is founded on the four precepts emerging from the preamble, i.e., justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, which assures dignity for human life. The test of constitutional morality is to bow to these norms. FGM is a practise that reduces a girl child to chattel. It makes her right to live with dignity conditional upon actions beyond her control. Moreover, it is a practise which can cause life-long impairment, including difficulties with urination, kidney damage, infertility and psychological problems. Thus, taking into account the consequences of FGM on the life and well-being of a girl, FGM may not justify itself to be a practice validated on the basis of any religious tenet. 

While some people categorise FGM as discrimination against women, it is often the women of the community who are the perpetrators of this practice. It thus boils down to FGM being a facet of religion governed by individual belief. Autonomy is the premise for religious freedom and only stands legitimised when applied to one’s own choice to undergo FGM. It cannot be used as a blanket protection to permit actions, which can be categorised as a crime causing grievous hurt under the criminal statutes of the country. The Supreme Court of India has observed that depriving freedom to choose on the basis of faith is impermissible. Given that FGM is largely carried out on girls, who have little or no knowledge of the atrocity they are being subjected to, this results in an implicit denial or deprivation of the freedom to make a choice to undergo cutting. This appears to be in direct violation of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.

The focus on elimination of FGM by international organizations has driven several countries to enforce laws against FGM. Sadly, in India, neither the political leaders nor the judiciary is playing its part to ban FGM.  The Public Interest Litigation filed in 2017 before the Supreme Court of India to enact an anti-FGM law is still pending after being referred to a larger bench. Additionally, the Minister for Women and Child Development in 2017, who once sought a ban on FGM, later released a statement to say that there is no data in existence of FGM in India.

From the surveys conducted on FGM in India, it is apparent that girls and women are willing to raise their voices against FGM, but are prevented many times from doing so due to the fear of expulsion from the community. To ensure effective support, a specific anti-FGM legislation is of utmost significance. Such a law may play an important role to instill fear in the minds of the people who allow FGM or are indifferent towards it. It may serve as a tool for community members to combat societal pressure in regard to FGM. An anti-FGM law may reinforce confidence among the girls and women to report cases of FGM. It may also help to put in place a mechanism for mandatory reporting of cases and also adequate protection measures. A strong political will is the key to end the practice of FGM in India. It is only when the political leaders are sensitised about the consequences of FGM to women and girls, that there may be a positive change towards enacting an anti-FGM legislation. The next key element will be the capacity building of lawyers, judges, police personnel, and social workers, who will be the driving force to identify and prevent cases of FGM in the country by systematic enforcement of laws and policies. 

However, one needs to be mindful that while a law may serve as a deterrent, the perpetrators are almost always mothers, grandmothers and other family members. Thus, the fight towards abolition of FGM requires a sensitised and a holistic approach. This includes awareness programmes that stress on the issue of FGM, framing comprehensive policies and guidelines and also education about the consequences of FGM to overcome religious barriers and give importance to human life.

Finally, societal change also requires a strong opposition from the men in their roles as fathers, community leaders and husbands who many times in the past have had a passive role in encouraging FGM. If they were to make the decision to abandon the practice, it would have widespread impact and help shift the mindset around FGM, thus aid to abolish the practice.

There is a need for a change in the way people think and perceive others and their rights. This change will allow breaking the barriers of the age-old customs and traditions that allow subjugation of women, and will aid in protecting the girl child.

 

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.