Sahiyo team speaks at The Pre-summit of #EndFGM Global Conference

On July 17th, Sahiyo’s Development Assistant Sarrah Hussain and Programs Coordinator Catherine Cox spoke at a panel discussion on female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) hosted by the Future Shakers Initiative (FSI). This event, The Pre-summit of #EndFGM Global Conference, was the prelude to the conference. The summit was an online webinar convening international speakers and advocates to share ideas and prepare for the in-person conference.

As part of The Pre-summit of the #EndFGM Global Conference, Hussain and Cox were joined by Dr. Ibidapo Fashina, Abayomi Sarumi, and Damilola Amoo, moderated by FSI founder, Tobi Olanipekun. During the two-session event, this group of activists and change-makers convened over Google Meet to discuss their roles in challenging FGM/C, and how to build global bridges to advocate for the end of the practice. This inspirational panel of speakers explored the health consequences of FGM/C; the justifications and social norms underpinning the practice; and how we all can become better activists in empowering our communities to end the practice. 

During the event, the speakers had the opportunity to answer critical questions such as, “What human rights does FGM/C violate?” and “How can young people challenge FGM/C?” Our team highlighted how FGM/C is practiced on young girls without consent and is a violation of the rights of girls. FGM/C also violates a person’s rights to health, security, and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to life, as this practice can result in death. We additionally stressed Sahiyo’s belief in the power that storytelling can create change, spark healing, and inspire individuals and communities to advocate for the abandonment of FGM/C. We believe that highlighting and amplifying the voices of survivors can be a powerful way to challenge FGM/C, the norms of silence and shame that often keep women from speaking out, and to give space for survivors to heal. 

During the question and answer session at the end of the event, one guest asked how modern technologies are being utilized to help end FGM/C. Sahiyo speakers highlighted the initiative, Mumkin, an app that was created by Sahiyo’s co-founders Priya Goswami and Aarefa Johari. This is an app that uses artificial intelligence to help activists practice having difficult conversations around FGM/C. We encourage all of our allies to download this app in order to help them practice having critical conversations around FGM/C.   

The Pre-summit of the #EndFGM Global Conference was an eye-opening exploration of the many issues and concepts surrounding FGM/C, as well as the need for global connections and idea-sharing to foster a global community dedicated to ending FGM/C and all forms of violence against women and girls. The #EndFGM Global Conference will be taking place in-person in Nigeria later this year.

If you are interested in having a member of Sahiyo speak at an event at your institution, please email our team: info@sahiyo.com. You can also fill out our request for an outreach presentation form at https://sahiyo.com/community-outreach/.

Voices reflection: Speaking freely about my experience

By Somaya Abdelrahman

It is safe to say that the day I underwent female genital mutilation (FGM) was by far the worst day of my life. I grew up in a country that is infamous for the high rate of FGM in the region in Egypt. I was cut at the age of 10. I have always been very concerned about women’s rights and gender equality. This passion and concern was what inspired me to produce documentary work that brings this crime to light. For me, projecting a story visually through photography offers a medium to expose the ugly truth, to tell a story, or to spotlight underrepresented groups of people. I want to protect every girl who could be cut from this painful experience, which is an outright violation of women’s rights. 

Through the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I was able to express my feelings and speak freely about my experience. I really would like to thank Mariya from Sahiyo and Amy from StoryCenter for supporting me throughout the virtual digital storytelling workshop.

Voices reflection: Storytelling as a powerful medium

By Nicole Mitchell 

I was inspired to join this workshop because the idea of using storytelling as a medium to fight oppression is particularly powerful. I also wanted to listen to other women tell their stories and support them in speaking truth to power.

My hope is that by being vulnerable and sharing my story, I can encourage other individuals to do the same. I want women to know that they are not alone, they deserve to tell their story without fear of what the repercussions might be. 

The workshop experience was far better than I could have ever imagined! In fact, I miss it. What I loved most was listening to everyone share their experiences. I LOVED that it was with women from different parts of the world, with different experiences. Hearing their stories made me feel like I was learning so much more about life and not limited to my personal experiences. I would leave each meeting feeling so much more whole and curious about life because of these discussions.  

If you are thinking of doing the Voices workshop, DO IT. Not only will you benefit from it personally, but you will be helping other people by telling your story. Also, it’s okay to feel nervous and self-conscious. Do it anyway.

Voices reflection: An advocate’s journey

By Nesha Abiraj

Sometimes, our path chooses us. 

I became a lawyer 12 years ago because I wanted to help people who had been wronged get legal justice. If I had left that conversation and did nothing, knowing the risk millions of girls face, and knowing that the law was not even on the side of survivors or those at risk, I would be betraying my own sense of justice and morality. I  strongly believe that if you have a platform which you can use to further amplify the voices of survivors, you should use it. 

For these reasons, I stepped outside of my comfort zone to make this video for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) project. As lawyers we are trained to advocate based on principles of law and fact, and under no circumstances are we to become the story, so for me this digital storytelling workshop was a new and uncomfortable space to step into. I remember feeling like I did not belong in the beginning. Honestly, it was the courage of the survivors impacted by FGM/C who participated in the workshop that really gave me the strength to stay with it. It’s hard to tell someone else’s story, but even more difficult having to look within yourself. It opens you up to vulnerability and fear, which I learned dissipates when surrounded by allies.

In doing this work, I started understanding the why of it all for me. In my life my pursuit of justice on behalf of others was always fueled by the desire to give to others the legal recourse to justice that I did not have and which I could not give to others in my childhood. In participating in the workshop, I recognized that although we did not have the same shared experience that caused us harm and pain, like some of the other participants I knew that feeling of powerlessness as a child and to have the consequences of that follow you throughout your life. I understood all too well that feeling of disappointment and perhaps even betrayal by the people closest to you and yet, part of you still wants to protect them.   

I have always tried to live my life to be a light for others. It is my hope that this video will be a light of inspiration to others to take action and a light to survivors and those at risk to know that they are not alone. They have allies that see them, hear them, and stand with them in this fight to bring about survivor-centered solutions guided by principles of human rights for every child at risk.  

Reflecting on the critical intersections between anti-racism and female genital cutting

By Sarah Boudreau

In late July, Sahiyo held its webinar, Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher moderated the panel discussion that included four expert speakers: Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Sunera Sadicali, and Aissata M.B. Camara. The event included thoughtful commentary on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C, as well as the struggles the panelists have faced while working to spread awareness and bring an end to FGM/C. 

Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM/C with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Hussein works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM/C around the world. Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Johari is a senior reporter with Scroll.in, where she covers gender and labour. She has been speaking out against female genital cutting since 2012 and is one of the five original co-founders of Sahiyo. Sunera Sadicali grew up in a family that was a part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only Bohras in the Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. Sadicali is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism. Camara is a professional with over a decade of program development and management, strategic planning, and relationship-building experience in non-profit, local government, and international affairs. A social entrepreneur and advocate, she was featured in The Guardian, PBS, RFI, Deutshe Welle and Brut for her advocacy to end female genital mutilation/cutting. Camara is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nations.

The four panelists, who are survivors of FGM/C, answered questions about how FGM/C intersects with other forms of oppression, including racism, violence, and “othering.” They also discussed the lack of legislation and law enforcement surrounding the practice, and challenges to passing laws to protect girls at risk. One notable part of the discussion occurred when Hussein made the point that survivors can become gatekeepers and have the opportunity to change the way that they are perceived. She relayed that when people hear about FGM/C, they may dismiss it and attribute it to cultural practice, but by naming FGM/C as child abuse rooted in patriarchy and oppression, survivors can draw attention to the issue for what it is in order to truly show people the harm being done.

Toward the end of the webinar, Camara discussed other movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter and how allyships must be formed in order to generate more traction in the media to spread FGM/C awareness. By teaming up with other survivors, resources, officials and organizations, more conversations about FGM/C can lead to change. 

In conclusion, the Critical Intersections webinar allowed panelists from diverse backgrounds to share their views on racism and FGMC. Several ideas were brought up about how to spark change and dialogue in both local communities and globally. But the common thread among all the speakers was that change is not always easy, but always worth fighting for. For the sake of women and girls everywhere, the future holds hope for justice, healing, and change.

Read the webinar transcript.

Remembering Egyptian feminist’s heroic fight against female genital cutting

By Madrisha Debnath

Despite the fact that the mother of Egyptian Feminist Movement Nawal El Saadawi died at aged 89 earlier this year, her fight against patriarchy lives on. Born in 1931, she was an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, physician and a powerful feminist activist who fought against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) for many years. In her autobiography, she wrote as a survivor of FGM/C, “Since I was a child that deep wound left in my body has never healed.” 

She began her activism in her college days against the cultural institution of the state that promoted FGM/C. In her opinion, when religious institutions gain power, oppression against women of the region increases ,and she believed that women are oppressed under all religious institutions. She wrote 47 books on issues that women face in Egypt. Even as she spent three months in prison, she wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper. She is popularly known as the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab World.

El Saadawi was the founder and president of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and co-founder of the Arab Association for Human Rights. She has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium; Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium; and the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She won the North-South Prize from the council of Europe in 2004, Stig Dagerman Prize in 2011, and has been featured in BBC’s 100 women of 2015 to name a few.  

In 1972 she wrote the book Women and Sex in which she criticized FGM/C. Her book became a foundational text of second-wave feminism. The book was banned in Egypt and consequently she lost her job as the director general of public health for the Egyptian Ministry of Health. In 1980 she yet again wrote about her experience of undergoing a cliterodectomy in her book The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. She was the founder of the Health Education Association and the Egyptian Women Writers’ Association and was the Chief Editor of Health Magazine in Cairo, and Editor of Medical Association Magazine

As she graduated as a medical doctor from Cairo University in 1955 she observed that women’s physical and psychological problems are actually deeply rooted in the religious and cultural institutions they belong to. She connected oppressive cultural practices and norms of the society to the systemic oppression under the structures of class, patriarchy and imperialism. While working as a doctor in Egypt she became aware of the issue of domestic violence and inequalities that women face in their day to day life. After trying to protect one of her patients from domestic violence, she went back to Cairo and eventually became the director of the Ministry of Public Health. As a feminist and a doctor she was against male circumcision. In her view she did not separate cutting children from a physical or social point of view. In an interview to The Independent she said, “I am going to carry on this forever.” Her legacy will live on for future generations to consider.

Voices reflection: Feeling connected even when you may not be

By Anonymous

How do you associate yourself with a community you are not actively part of? How do you find comfort in a space that is familiar and foreign at the same time? How do you find answers and solace from strangers across continents? 

It is through experiences and stories. That’s what Sahiyo and Storycenter’s Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) program brought to me. The Sahiyo team reached out to me, asking if I would like to share my story of FGM/C through the participatory storytelling project. At first, I was excited at the opportunity, but then I was apprehensive. Did I have a story to tell? 

I was raised in the Bohra community, and knew about FGM/C. My curiosity to understand the practice pushed me to focus my Master’s thesis on FGM/C.  While I had the opportunity (with Sahiyo’s help) to understand FGM/C from an academic perspective, I never really gave myself a chance to reflect on my own experiences and feelings about the practice, except that I was vehemently against it. 

The Voices project gave me the opportunity to do so. I could not join the live workshop due to the difference in time zones, but watching recordings of the workshop made me feel connected to the other women. I heard their stories, empathized with them, and dug deeper within myself to find my own story and voice, as well. 

I learned more about FGM/C – a practice I understood, did not undergo, but still felt deeply connected to. I dedicated time to understanding my own relationship with FGM/C – one of not being a survivor, but one of being affected by it. I learned more about women like me, and also very different from me, and we all shared something in common. I felt closer to the global  community of voices against FGM/C. 

Thank you, Sahiyo, and the participants of the workshop for sharing your stories and helping me find mine!

Sahiyo volunteer spotlight: Communications intern Amena Ali

Communications intern Amena Ali lives in Houston, Texas, and her all-time obsessions are tea and cat videos. She has a degree in psychology, but is currently working as a personal stylist. She is passionate about mental health, and she’s made it her life goal to make it a more open topic amongst immigrant families.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I’ve followed Sahiyo for a long time, but only recently started working with them and getting involved. My first Sahiyo event was the Activists’ Retreat earlier this year.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

My work involves compiling and organizing databases. I’m also working on article mentions, as well as the Dear Maasi video which represents Farzana Doctor’s sex and relationship column. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

My work with Sahiyo has given me resources on female genital mutilation/cutting. It also helped me to address the conversation on taboo topics with a lot of people around me. 

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

There is nothing more important than fighting for what you believe in. Your mental health and well-being come before any explained/unexplained customs and traditions. Your body is yours. No one gets to decide what happens to it except you and you only. Have empathy and learn how to be understanding. 

UnChained At Last: The United States’ Child Marriage Problem webinar reflection

By Cate Cox

On June 17th, UnChained At Last held their webinar, “The United States’ Child Marriage Problem.” Founded by a survivor of forced marriage, Fraidy Reiss, UnChained At Last is the only U.S.-based organization working to end forced and child marriages through direct advocacy and services. During this webinar, they explored their work and research into ending child marriage. At this event, they were joined by advocate Chelsea Clinton, author and influencer Blair Imani, bipartisan state Senators Julia Salazar (New York) and Katrina Shealy (South Carolina), Dr. Yvette Efevbera of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and survivor and advocate Patricia Abatemarco.

Globally, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday. In a study conducted by UnChained At Last, they found that between 2000-2018 approximately 300,000 children were married across the United States, the majority of whom were underaged girls marrying adult men. The marriages documented involved girls as young as 10 years old. Also, 60,000 of all documented marriages involved a couple where the age difference between the two would constitute statutory rape if they were not married. Child marriage predicates a multitude of physical and mental health issues: abuse, lack of education, and poverty. Yet, public understanding of the severity of child marriage in the U.S. is very limited. 

Like many types of gender-based violence, including female genital cutting (FGC), child marriage in the U.S. is upheld through complicated systems of patriarchy, economic survival strategies, cultural norms, and legislative inaction. Both Senators Salazar and Shealy agreed that culture and shame are a major cause of the continuation of the practice. Within communities with a history of child marriage, many are unable to understand the multi-layered harms of this practice, and many survivors say their parents forced them into marriages to avoid communal shame from pregnancy or rape. These notions of shame and cultural necessity undermine many forms of gender-based violence, forcing girls to sacrifice their autonomy and future or risk ostracization. 

Yet, the thousands of girls forced into marriage across the U.S. are often unable to access support services to escape dangerous situations. Being underage, in many states they cannot hire a lawyer, file for divorce, go to a domestic violence shelter, file a protective order, and other life-saving support systems if they become trapped in abusive situations. The irony of this is astounding, girls are old enough to be wives but not to be divorced. This loophole traps girls in cycles of violence and destroys families.  

At the beginning of this webinar, UnChained At Last shared their heart-wrenching video: The Girls You Have Destroyed, filmed by survivors of child marriage. By highlighting the stories of survivors (not unlike the Voices to End FGM/C videos by Sahiyo) they were able to show the real impact of this issue and highlight its deeply personal effects on women and girls. 

UnChained At Last staffers explained that they are working state-by-state to outlaw the practice of child marriage, since only five states including New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, and Rhode Island, have an outright ban on marriages involving persons under-18. There is no federal law against it. In order to push for legislative change, the approach of Sahiyo and other organizations to outlaw FGC in the United States mirrors that of UnChained At Last. Both are using a state-by-state approach, while simultaneously pushing for legislation at the federal level. While there is now a federal law, the STOP FGM Act of 2020, and 40 states with state-specific laws, it took the tireless work of activist across the U.S. to implement the most, seemingly inarguable, protections for girls against FGC. 

In better news, UnChained At Last found that the number of child marriages in the U.S. decreases every year. However, the speakers still stressed the continued importance of raising awareness about this issue. They highlighted that while U.S. foreign policy may condemn child marriage as a human rights abuse, we still allow it to be practiced on our soil. Speaker Blair Imani explained that the notion that child marriage is a “far away problem that requires faraway solutions” is one of the major barriers to addressing this issue in the U.S. 

While watching this webinar, I could not help but notice the similarities between the work to end child marriage and our work here at Sahiyo to end female genital cutting (FGC). From the intergenerational norms to the dismissal of the issue as a foreign phenomenon, the problems at hand are very similar. Both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last have struggled to make people aware of the severity of these issues within the U.S., and the urgency to address them. While discussing legislative action, one of the speakers in the UnChained webinar remembered speaking to a state legislature who told her, “Is it really that bad if a girl marries her rapist?” I was immediately drawn back to similar arguments advocates against FGC have heard such as, “It’s just a prick,” or, “It’s not that bad.” The severe harms caused by FGC and child marriage to women and girls are routinely dismissed, and survivors are left without support systems. 

At the same time both Sahiyo and UnChained At Last stress the importance of uplifting survivors’ voices, both for their personal healing and to create legislative change. Through tireless work, they and Sahiyo are making the world a safer place for girls, and are championing a world free of violence against women. 

You can watch the full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKlqmMqePks 

Voices reflection: Forging bonds

By Arefa Cassoobhoy

Every Wednesday evening for six weeks earlier this year, I logged on to my computer for a video meeting with 12 other women for the Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) digital storytelling workshop hosted by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. I did this to create a video that motivates others to speak up and stop this useless and harmful practice forced on young girls in the United States and elsewhere. We were from around the globe and while our stories all centered on FGM/C, each of us had a unique experience and outlook. I didn’t expect so quickly to forge a bond between the women in the group, but I did. The space was safe for us to share our experiences, hear each other’s comments about our project, and feel the compassion radiating through the group. 

Beyond the topic of FGM/C, I learned about the art of digital storytelling, as each week we added layers narrating our script, adding visual images, audio elements and video. I was amazed and inspired by the video drafts the other women shared along the way. Some had utilized beautiful photography or incorporated digital art tools, and crafts like crochet to convey their story. I recorded painting henna on my hands. What started as a simple conversation shared with the group developed into a digital story that I hope will influence others to protect their daughters from FGM/C.