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.
Madrisha Debnath is a graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi with a masters in geography. Her research interests are in the area of feminist geography, geography of bodies and embodiment. Having a female body, she is passionate to understand the cultural practice of FGC and the process of cultural embodiment. She is grateful to Sahiyo for upholding feminist values and thus being culturally inclusive, and looks forward to making a meaningful contribution as a research intern at achieving Sahiyo’s aim.
1. When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?
I had come to know about the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) in the African context from feminist literature that I was referring to during my master’s course in geography of social wellbeing concerning gender disparity. I had randomly searched for whether the practice was prevalent in the Indian subcontinent. This is when I came to know about Sahiyo and the petition they had initiated against the practice. I was inspired by how a counter feminist space was created by Sahiyo enabling women to come together and speak up against such patriarchal norms and practices. I had approached Sahiyo via email and was interviewed for the position of research intern. I was inspired by the active role Sahiyo had taken in the movement around “my body, my choice” and shared my views on body politics during the interview.
2. What does your work with Sahiyo involve?
My work with Sahiyo mostly includes drafting reflections on webinars on FGC, writing blogs, and proofreading for Sahiyo’s documents. Currently I am working closely with core team members in proofreading transcripts and performing thematic analysis on survivor’s accounts for Sahiyo’s storytelling project.
3. How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?
Aspiring to be a researcher, working with Sahiyo has helped me in developing an emic perspective on FGC by gaining sensitive cultural interpretations and working closely with the community facing the issue. I have learned a lot from Sahiyo’s storytelling program on how to normalize talk around such sensitive issues and deal with them from the grassroots level. I also loved the democratic work culture of the organization that gives space for dialogue and participation without feeling overburdened.
4. What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?
In my opinion, if anyone is motivated to do a certain task, the will comes from within. It is not easy to break the silence on the taboo of FGC, or for that matter any social problems, but if we start we can contribute to at least some changes and contribute toward building an equal society.
Storytelling is an important aspect in ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and finding closure for survivors emotionally and mentally. You are able to pour out all of these random thoughts and feelings you bottled up for so long. It gives you the opportunity to begin the healing process and start a journey of self discovery.
I participated in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop because I know sharing my story would help me heal, and inspire people to make a change. The storytelling workshop was fun, entertaining, and the message was delivered in a subtle, but effective way.
I know my voice can make a difference. My pain can help others understand what FGM survivors go through. For a long time I didn’t have the courage to face myself. Telling my story opened my vulnerability; and it’s okay to be vulnerable. The experience was therapeutic for me. I was empowered. I was transformed. I met a group of strong women who, like me, share the passion to end FGM. To those who are interested in participating in a Voices workshop, I say go for it. It is a journey of self discovery.
My personal goal is to have women at every table where decisions that affect them are being made, a future free from stigma, stereotypes, misogyny, patriarchal practices and armed violence. A future that is peaceful and sustainable with equal rights and opportunities. A future free from all harmful traditional practices.
To all FGM survivors like me, I leave you with one of my favourite quotations:
“Always remember you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagined.” – Rumi
In June Sahiyo partnered with Hidden Scars to host a training for practitioners and advocates working with survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) and female genital cutting (FGC).
Gender-based violence (GBV) is a reality for many women and girls. The World Health Organization reports that one in three women will experience sexual or physical violence in her lifetime. Yet, GBV often remains hidden and shrouded in silence and shame. At the core of providing better prevention, protection, health, and social support services for women and girls are stronger data, enhanced research, and community engagement. Our presentation explored how practitioners can provide trauma-informed care to survivors of GBV, using FGC as a case study. We also provided resources for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by both, and who are looking to better understand how to provide better care.
While Sahiyo’s expertise is in addressing FGC, we acknowledge that FGC is a form of gender-based violence and child abuse. Our team felt that many of the lessons that can be learned about how to help survivors of FGC could also be applied to all forms of GBV. Like other forms of gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, FGC is a learned behavior of childhood, and is often surrounded by a culture of silence and shame, and is a form of generational violence. However, GBV can also include childhood marriage, rape, sexual assault, honor crimes, domestic violence, and other crimes against women. While we used FGC as a case study, our goal was to create a training that would allow practitioners to provide better care to all survivors of gender-based violence.
During this event, we provided an overview of FGM/C and GBV, as well as shared videos from our Voices to End FGM/C project. These videos helped our audience better understand the complicated emotions and experiences survivors go through, and to begin to think about how they as providers can better support them in their journey toward healing. We also shared tools such as the George Washington University FGM/C Toolkit, Mumkin, and other resources that are available to help them and their organizations think about how to provide better care to surviors.
Finally, in order to facilitate conversations and help our guests practice communicating with survivors, we also hosted mock conversations. These conversations were held with the goal to help practitioners become more comfortable speaking with survivors and to practice having productive conversations with patients.
Although female genital cutting (FGC) is not limited to any one community, misconceptions rooted in racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia have still negatively impacted the movement to end FGC – as well as survivors themselves. In our work to end FGC, we must use an intersectional approach to support the needs of all women impacted by FGC and bring about substantial change. First coined in 1989 by professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, the term intersectionality was created to help us understand “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.” An intersectional approach to all social movements is crucial to address the intersecting oppressions that impact different communities.
On July 29th at 1 pm EST Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, “Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Cutting.” This webinar will explore the intersection of anti-racism work and the work to end FGC. Four expert speakers, including Leyla Hussein, Aarefa Johari, Aissata Camara, and Sunera Sadicali, will explore intersectionality and FGC in a panel moderated by Sahiyo U.S. Executive Director Mariya Taher. These renowned activists have worked in the field of FGC prevention and survivor support, exploring the critical intersections where this form of gender-based violence meets systemic racism. Our guest speakers’ experiences will expand the conversation on how FGC survivors and advocates for change often have to push back against racist narratives in their work and in their journey toward healing, as well as how systemic racism can delay substantial change on this issue.
During this webinar, you’ll be able to be a part of the discussion about how we can all become better educated and better advocates in the journey to end systemic racism and FGC. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend. Register Today: https://bit.ly/CriticalIntersectionsWebinar
Leyla Hussein is an anti-FGM campaigner and a survivor who shares her personal experience of FGM with the goal of protecting girls from this abusive practice. Originally from Somalia, Leyla works as a psychotherapist in the United Kingdom and addresses the prevalence of FGM around the world. As Leyla reminds us, FGM is a practice of oppressing women and controlling women’s sexuality. It’s not an African issue, it’s not an Asian issue; it’s a global issue that requires a global investment in women.
Aarefa Johari is a journalist, feminist and activist based in Mumbai, India. Aarefa 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. Sahiyo is an organization founded on the belief that storytelling in all forms can create positive social change and help empower communities to abandon the practice of FGC.
Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and moved to Lisbon when she was 2 years old. She 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. Sunera underwent khatna (FGM Type I) by age of 8 in Pakistan while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine by the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012 in women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism and healthcare activism. Sunera is constantly trying to reconcile and find a balance between motherhood, art, her work as a family doctor, and political activism.
Aissata M.B. 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. She has received numerous awards, including the New York State Assembly Certificate of Merit, Knights of Pythias Medal of Achievement, the Hackett Medal for Oratory Excellence, and the Jo Ivey Boufford Award. Aissata is also a frequent speaker at conferences, including high-level events at the United Nation
On June 3rd, 2021 Sahiyo partnered with the Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative and The George Washington University associate professor Dr. Karen McDonnell to hold a training for healthcare professionals who may interact with survivors of female genital cutting (FGC). The Connecticut Trauma and Gender Learning Collaborative focuses on trauma-informed and gender-responsive treatment. Many of the participants are actively providing clinical services.
This presentation explored FGC in the United States and resources available for clinicians and other front-line professionals who may come in contact with women impacted by FGC, as well as how they can provide trauma-informed care. In particular, our training highlighted The George Washington University’s Women and FGM/C Toolkit as a tool to help further their education and to become better prepared to support survivors in their journey toward healing.
Alongside the GW Women and FGM/C Toolkit, we highlighted Sahiyo resources such as the Trauma Blog Series by Joanna Vergoth, founder and executive director of forma, among others. During the training, we also used some of our Voices to End FGM/C videos to highlight the lack of education on how to support survivors of FGC in the medical field and the imperative practitioners have to fill in those gaps to better support all women.
At the end of the presentation many of the attendees said they didn’t realize how widespread the problem of FGC is in the U.S. They expressed that they are grateful to have had the opportunity to learn how to better support their patients. Overall, trainings such as this one are crucial to help providers learn how to best support survivors and to help expand the understanding that FGC is a problem in the U.S. that we all need to be involved in addressing.
Kamakshi Arora is a social media intern for Sahiyo. She is a multidisciplinary designer, artist, and researcher. She has a bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from NC State and a Masters in Product Design from The University of The Arts. Originally from Mumbai, India, she moved to the United States to pursue higher studies. She is particularly interested in using a transdisciplinary, participatory approach to design strategies for addressing current gender inequities, and to co-create meaningful initiatives to tackle women’s rights and health issues. She supports Sahiyo’s mission of empowering women through innovative grassroots initiatives based on storytelling and community engagement and is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about working in a feminist organization.
1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?
It was early in the year, and I really wanted to volunteer and support a feminist organization that was working for gender equity and reform. My thesis was on the concept of healing for survivors of sexual assault. I wanted to find an organization that was doing similar work and as soon as I found out about Sahiyo, I knew I had found that place. Sahiyo’s approach of combining storytelling and advocacy really caught my eye. I’m also from Mumbai so it felt like a great fit to be a part of an organization that was based out of my home.
2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?
Right now I’m mostly involved in social media. This includes programming and developing content, sharing articles and educational information on our channels, and maintaining our persona online. As a designer, I love that I can be creative as I have used my artwork and drawing as a way to advance Sahiyo’s program. I try to subtly use my training in human-centered design and trauma-informed principles in the work that I create for Sahiyo.
3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?
Greatly. For one thing, I saw the power of storytelling in all its forms. Sahiyo taught me to be coherent and persevering with our messages and how we can write a story that supports the purpose of our mission. Second, my perspectives as an intersectional feminist have expanded. I was not aware of female genital cutting (FGC) before. I have learned much about the issue of FGC and its existence in the broader context of women’s subjugation in our society and cultures. I’m now a lifelong advocate and ally of Sahiyo’s mission and will continue to use my own skills to do my bit.
4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?
Please do not be afraid to learn and inquire about female genital cutting. By asking questions and speaking actively, we are contributing to Sahiyo’s mission to end FGC. Share our stories, attend our workshops, make a donation, and/or volunteer. It’s all so informative, and you’ll leave with a wealth of resources to do your own advocacy.
Launched in 2020, Bhaiyo is Sahiyo’s male allyship program whose aim is to create a space where male allies can come together to collaborate, spark dialogue, and spread information about female genital cutting (FGC) and its harmful impacts. Bhaiyo has been involved in engaging male allies in a multitude of ways, including a webinar on male allyship earlier this year. On June 20th Bhaiyo will begin a Father’s Day inspired social media campaign to promote our program and encourage male allyship in our work to empower communities to end FGC.
During this month-long Father’s Day social media campaign, we will be highlighting the role men play in empowering their communities to end FGC — particularly focused on their roles and experiences as fathers, or future fathers, and brothers. This project is open to all male-identifying individuals who feel they can speak on this issue.
We are asking anyone who feels passionate about this issue to send in a short response answering the questions below in video, audio, or photo format. You can also send in a quotation if you are not comfortable with sharing a video or photo. Additionally, we can keep your response anonymous if you wish. Here are the questions we are hoping you can answer. You can answer one, multiple, or all of these questions:
When did you first come to know about FGC?
Why are Bhaiyo and male ally programs in general important?
How can brothers/fathers make an impact?
What message would you like to give to all the fathers out there?
This month-long social media campaign will culminate in a meet and greet event for male activists involved in this work. On July 20th male activists and members of Bhaiyo will have the opportunity to meet with one another, talk about their experiences, and discuss their hopes for Bhaiyo. By culminating this campaign in a meet and greet event, we hope to inspire community and bonding between our male allies so that they can share resources, stories, and keep each other motivated in their crucial work.
By using social media to share the stories of male allies, we hope to show other men who have not yet become involved in Sahiyo’s work that there is a spot for them and that their voices are crucial in ending FGC. Additionally, we hope to elevate the voices of our amazing male allies who are already engaged in this work so that they can spread their messages of hope and transformation to a larger audience.
We hope that this campaign will help to break the silence that keeps men from speaking up against FGC and begin to normalize conversations around what men can be doing in their communities to help encourage the end of FGC.
I had the opportunity to attend Sahiyo’s second virtual Activists’ Retreat (my first one) last month and absolutely loved every second of it. I had been feeling extreme Zoom fatigue leading up to the weekend, and wasn’t exactly looking forward to spending an entire weekend on Zoom. But as soon as the weekend started, I forgot about how tired I felt and immersed myself in all of the activities. My favorite part of the entire weekend was definitely just interacting with all the other attendees: getting to know them, hearing their stories and ideas, and feeling a sense of community even though we were all miles apart from each other. Together we created a space that was truly welcoming and inclusive. During one of the sessions, a past participant even privately messaged me. She noticed I had been quiet and encouraged me to share my thoughts. She gave me the push I needed to speak up and share my ideas, something I would not have normally done.
It seems crazy to say that the Activists’ Retreat created change over the span of three days of virtual sessions. But after participating in it first hand, I can confidently say that it did have an enormous impact on the overall movement to end female genital cutting (FGC). During our closing session, I noticed other attendees, myself included, simply reflecting on everything we had learned. We learned about the long legal history of FGC in the U.S. and globally, about sexual health in the context of FGC, about the experiences, actions, and ideas of other attendees. There were first time attendees who participated in the retreat unsure of where they stood on the issue that ended the weekend with a lot to ponder. We also outlined action items, both individually and as a group, of tangible things we wanted to work on and accomplish over the next year, from raising money so Sahiyo can continue to sustain itself to work toward policy change at the state level. One of my goals was to speak to my own friends from mosque, something I had been wanting to do for a while, but always felt too scared. Last week, I had dinner with one of these friends, and at the end of the night I just decided to go for it and ask her about FGC. We were able to have a long conversation about it and I got to learn her perspective, and she learned mine. She said she didn’t have enough knowledge about the topic but was thankful I had brought it up to her. She said she would do more of her own research when she got home.
Without the Activists’ Retreat, I don’t know if I would have had the courage or mindset to have this conversation with my friend. But knowing there were other people who were also having these difficult discussions and were pushing themselves to advocate against this issue motivated me to do the same. Throughout this year, I am going to continue working toward my goal to talk to more of my friends about FGC, and in doing so, broaden the conversation so we can protect the next generation of girls.