Research study explores female genital cutting

“Talking about Female Genital Cutting (FGC): A Study” is a research study undertaken to explore the way communities talk about FGC, the challenges of having such conversations, and the attitudes toward movements and campaigns on FGC. The study is authored by Reetika Revathy Subramanian and funded by Grand Challenges Canada. The project has been led by Vasavya Mahila Mandali from 2019-20 in association with Sahiyo India

This multi-disciplinary study investigates communication attitudes and challenges for having a conversation/s on khatna or FGC. It adopts a mixed-methods approach using an in-depth qualitative survey and feminist focus group discussions, both anchored online, to explore the links between the need for privacy and feminist-led advocacy in the existing public conversations and contestations on the practice of FGC in India and globally. 

The findings of the research seek to explore a connection between the need for privacy and feminist-led digital-safe spaces. 

The survey questionnaire for this study is open to all Bohras above 18 years of age, and it is available in three languages:

Take the survey in English

Take the survey in Gujarati.

Take the survey in Hindi.

My meaningful experience as an intern at Sahiyo

By Nicole Mitchell

In early 2019, I had the pleasure of joining the Sahiyo team as a Social Media Intern. I remember being a bit nervous, as working fully remote at a new company was something I had never done before. Both my supervisor, Lara Kingstone, and the co-Founder Mariya Taher, were extremely friendly and supportive during the onboarding process. Over time, their passion about ending female genital cutting (FGC) became contagious, to the point where I found myself actually looking forward to doing the work.

At the time, I had a very busy schedule where I was finishing up my senior year of college, doing a concurrent internship in Boston, all while working full-time. Despite this, I found that working for a cause that would change so many lives for the better gave me a sense of fulfillment that I wasn’t expecting. To be honest, I miss this feeling. This is one of the things I thank Sahiyo for because I now know that it is possible to have a job that you can actually be excited about. The dreariness of your typical 9-5 cubicle life that we see in the media, or the idea of hating your job, but enduring it so you can at least enjoy the weekend, doesn’t have to be true for everyone. Many of us can find meaning and enjoyment in our work. 

Working with Sahiyo gave me direction, hope and inspiration for my future. On a more practical level, my internship also gave me tools that allowed for me to transfer easily into a role as a marketing specialist at a Boston–based company after graduating with my B..A. While I know that it is rare to land your dream job the first time, I am glad that I at least have an idea of what type of work I can look for in the future because of my experiences with Sahiyo. 

One of my favorite things I did while at Sahiyo was work on a digital campaign where survivors could tell their stories. This was a powerful experience where women from all over the world came together to share their experiences and take a united stand in ending this practice. I was also responsible for writing and scheduling out the content which helped cultivate my creative, strategic and organizational skills. Overall, I am extremely thankful for this opportunity and am glad I can still be a part of this organization in a volunteer capacity. I would highly recommend this internship to anyone who is looking to develop their marketing skills and are passionate about making the world a better place through elevating the lives of others.

Sleeping researchers and lack of data on female genital cutting in Pakistan

By Huda Syyed

Two decades ago, I flipped through Reader’s Digest to distract my mind from schoolwork and the sweltering summer heat of Pakistan. My eyes glanced at the brief excerpt displayed mid-page with a glossy picture of a famous Somalian model, Waris Dirie. She exuded a sense of resilience, and I knew there was a meaningful story behind this woman. I was immersed in the daunting narrative of how she was blindfolded by her own mother to be cut. The pain was physically traumatizing, and she passed out. By the age of thirteen, Waris Dirie was coaxed by her father into the idea of an arranged marriage to an older man. Her dismay toward this proposal culminated into a desire to run away from home. 

She eventually found her way to London as a model. She still carried the realization that female genital cutting (FGC) extended beyond physical invasion, and resulted in health complications and deaths for many girls in Somalia. This encouraged her to become an activist, and she has dedicated herself to ending FGC. 

As I grew older and gravitated toward research and data collection, I found an article that mentioned FGC being practised in Pakistan. I was determined to gather contemporary data and historical understanding on it. Upon further readings, it became clear that FGC was a secretive practice in Pakistan in the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

A collective discernment of these realities pushed me to dig deeper and write a research paper that explored this practice and its socio-sexual effects. Apart from a few newspaper articles about FGC, there was not much information. It happens, but nobody talks about it. People from other communities are usually unaware that khatna is practiced in Pakistan. I was met with reactions of disbelief when I had discussions about it with non-members of the Dawoodi Bohra community. 

Sahiyo was one of the few reliable sources that recorded important data regarding FGC practices within the South Asian region (it also included Pakistan). Sahiyo focused on creating a culture of dialogue to uncover this practice; they also recorded numerical data, which could be helpful in tracing the frequency and historical context of FGC. Cutting is discreetly performed in residential spaces and not usually practised in conventional medical environments in Pakistan. Sahiyo surveys revealed this piece of significant information, which I later correlated with my own qualitative data. The interviews I conducted with a few participants in Karachi revealed that most of the young girls were cut at secluded spots inside a home, where some woman is well-versed with the physical practice of genital cutting. 

My main point of emphasis is that there is minimal research data on FGC in Pakistan, understandably so, because minority communities feel threatened or shamed for their cultural practices. 

Minorities in Pakistan have faced prejudice and threats in the past; hence, the need for cultural sensitivity while addressing FGC is imperative. Moreover, Pakistani society follows a patriarchal mindset, where female genitals or sex are uncomfortable topics to discuss publicly. This makes it challenging to have verbal discourse for the acquisition of qualitative data, because many women feel FGC should remain a secret. The lack of credible statistical data in Pakistan makes it difficult to track the frequency of FGC in contemporary culture. It is important to collect more data on FGC in Pakistan so it can be correlated with the socio-economic conditions, family set-up and religious leanings of young girls and women. Information of this sort could allow for a deeper understanding of bodily autonomy and factors that are more likely to foster a mutual respect for their bodies and its protection. 

There is a dire need for dialogue and engagement with the Dawoodi Bohra community from a culturally respectful distance. It is important for their community to feel unharmed and safe because this approach could lead to meaningful qualitative data that could help everyone understand the near permanence of FGC. 

Interviews, verbal discourse, and discussions are a gateway to accessing the historical, emotional, and psychological attachment of community members to this physically invasive practice. One of my interview participants expressed that FGC was a way of ensuring that a woman does not stray from her husband (possibly due to decreased sexual desire or libido response), and she did not see it as a harmful act. Keeping in mind such sentiments, it is vital to bridge the insider versus outsider dynamic by listening, recording, and preserving the anonymity of data respondents. 

If young girls and women in the Dawoodi Bohra community of Pakistan feel comfortable and secure discussing this topic with outsiders of the community, there will be more possibility of gathering useful data that could be utilized in creating support groups and spaces for those that have experienced physical or psychological strain or trauma due to cutting. 

Finding participants for qualitative data collection was a tedious task because very few women were willing to speak about this. Even within one community, there are those that deem FGC as a problematic practice; but there are also those that associate religious and cultural significance with it.

Researchers must take a softer approach that refrains from shaming the community for ancestral practices. The objective should be to safely record community narratives and observe their historical reasoning for FGC, so that long-term solutions can be sought that diplomatically create safe options and spaces for young girls to celebrate the freedom of bodily autonomy.

Upcoming webinar: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After FGC

By Cate Cox

Female genital cutting (FGC) often comes with a multitude of physical and psychological issues that can impact sexual functioning for many survivors. Yet, oftentimes too little attention is given to these problems.

On October 22nd, from 12 p.m.-1 p.m., Sahiyo will be hosting an inspiring webinar about FGC, sexuality, and its connection to mental health. During this webinar, we will hear from three expert panelists: Farzana Doctor, Joanna Vergoth, and Sarian Karim-Kamara, who will help to shed light on these subjects using their professional and personal experiences. 

Farzana Doctor is an award-winning Canadian novelist and social worker. Her work includes ​Stealing Nasreen​,​ Six Metres of Pavement​, All Inclusive​, and​ her latest novel, SEVEN​. SEVEN explores the often complicated relationship between modern and traditional customs, and the struggle to end the practice of khatna, or female genital cutting, in the Bohra community. Recently named one of CBC Books’ “100 Writers in Canada You Need To Know Now,” Farzana’s novels explore complex topics, including loss, relationships, sexuality, gender, and racism. She is also the co-founder of WeSpeakOut and The End FGM/C Canada Network, two organizations dedicated to ending FGC.

Sarian Karim-Kamara is a community development worker and the founder of Keep the Drums Lose the Knife (KDLK). She is one of the leading campaigners and activists working to end the practice of FGC, and all other forms of violence against women in the United Kingdom and Sierra Leone. Sarian underwent FGC as a child in Sierra Leone and she has spoken bravely and openly about her own traumatic experiences to help raise awareness. She runs educational workshops for professionals and communities; as well as weekly support groups for survivors of FGC in Peckham, London. She also travels to Sierra Leone to run empowerment and educational workshops aimed at young people and communities. In 2019, Sarian won the Prime Minister’s Point of Light Award. In 2014, she received an award from her Sierra Leone community in London for her service to them as a Community Champion.

Joanna Vergoth is a licensed clinical social worker and certified psychoanalyst with 20 years of experience in the field. Throughout her career, she has focused much of her work on healing trauma and advocacy work. Over the past decade, she has become a committed activist to the cause of ending FGC. She first began as coordinator of the Midwest Network on Female Genital Cutting, and recently worked to establish forma, a nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive, culturally-sensitive clinical services to women and families affected by FGC, as well as offering psychoeducational outreach, advocacy, and awareness training.

To hear from these amazing women please register for the event through the link below. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand, and join us for what is sure to be an eye-opening and powerful conversation. This webinar is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register here: https://bit.ly/HealingAfterFGC 

This event is co-sponsored by Sahiyo, WeSpeakOut, End FGM/C Canada Network, forma, and Keep the Drums Lose the Knife.

Staff Spotlight: Development Intern Sarrah Hussain

Sarrah is an undergraduate student still exploring what she wants to study at Stanford University. She is passionate about women’s rights and health, especially female genital cutting (FGC). This will be her first time working with a nonprofit organization, and she is excited to create change and uplift voices with the Sahiyo team.

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

I began following the Sahiyo instagram account and learning about their mission last year, when I became curious to learn more about FGC within my community. Since then, I have actively followed Sahiyo and its work, and when I saw the opening for internships in February I thought I’d shoot my shot. Since May of this year, I am officially a development intern for Sahiyo, and could not be more excited to work with this incredible team to make an impact for an issue I care deeply about.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a development intern, my work is primarily focused on expanding Sahiyo and securing grants and funding opportunities so Sahiyo can do the meaningful work it does.

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

I am still relatively new to Sahiyo, but already Sahiyo has impacted my life because I know I am contributing to a larger mission to create a greater change in the world. I am inspired by the passion I see in those I work with, and happy knowing my work has real meaning.

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

I would say take the leap! When first considering applying to Sahiyo, I didn’t think I had the skills necessary to be a development intern, I was scared that I wouldn’t live up to what was asked of me, and I was even a little nervous about being involved with a nonprofit working on such a taboo subject. But I took a leap, applied, and got the position, and I am so happy I did. Though sometimes I feel lost, there is a whole team of wonderful people who want to support you and help you learn. It is really comforting and inspiring to see others who feel the same way as you and simply want to protect future generations of girls.

Population Council hosts webinar to discuss ending female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The Population Council hosted a fascinating webinar, Using Research to Understand and Accelerate The Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). It was the second of two webinars from a series titled, Evidence to End FGM/C: Research to Help Girls and Women Thrive. The most recent webinar reported some of the findings of a research consortium that began in 2015 and culminated this year. The research spanned eight countries and concluded with how initiatives to end FGM/C may be optimized. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington (moderator); Nada Wahba, Population Council, Egypt; Dennis Matanda, Population Council, Kenya; P. Stanley Yoder, medical anthropologist; and Nafissatou J. Diop, UNFPA.

Dr. Matanda spoke on the use of data to inform programming. His research spanned Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal, and sought to map hotspots for FGM/C. The data pinpointed the areas of each country in which FGM/C is most prevalent. Dr. Matanda’s findings also reveal how factors relating to a girl’s mother influence the likelihood that she will be cut. The results varied by region, but some of these factors included the mother’s ethnic group, her beliefs surrounding FGM/C, and if she herself was cut. The most important takeaway from Dr. Matanda’s research is that considering only national data masks local variations. He recommends linking regional data to subnational policies and efforts to prevent FGM/C from occuring to future generations of girls. 

Medical anthropologist Dr. Yoder responded to Dr. Matanda’s research, remarking that Kenya was the only country of the three where the level of education of the mother was found to have an effect on the risk of a girl being cut. He proposes modernization, the shift from traditional and rural to secular and urban, as an explanation for Dr. Matanda’s findings. I believe that Dr. Yoder’s theory illuminates a need for ongoing research on this subject that correlates the changes in Kenya’s social, economic, and political growth to changes in the continuation of FGM/C. 

Following Dr. Yoder’s analysis, Wahba presented her research on the intersection of FGM/C and gender in Egypt. Hers was a qualitative study with multiple intriguing findings. One discovery that I found especially important was that conflicted mothers have been turning to doctors to decide on their behalf whether or not their daughter should be cut. This could be a result of the increasing medicalization of FGM/C in Egypt. Another interesting finding was that if either one of the parents, whether it be the mother or the father, does not want their daughter to be cut, then she will not undergo FGM/C. While many programs working to end FGM/C target the mother as the decision maker, Wahba’s research clearly shows that mothers are not the only influential group. For this reason, more anti-FGM/C programs should shift their efforts to also educate fathers and doctors, particularly in regions with high rates of medicalization. 

Diop followed Wahba’s presentation to provide analysis of the research. Diop feels strongly that FGM/C is rooted in gender inequalities, yet not nearly enough programs acknowledge this fact. She claims many programs that address cutting are gender blind, focusing too much on the consequences of FGM/C in their approach rather than the root causes for why FGM/C continues in the first place. Diop’s comments were a strong call to action for all advocates to take a gender transformative approach in order to achieve abandonment of FGM/C. 

More information about this research project can be found here.

The webinar can be viewed here.

To my surprise, my friend defended khatna

By Anonymous

Having decided to pursue law at the age of 15 years old, I was excited yet unprepared to know about the society that we live in. For the past four years, I have gathered enough evidence through lectures, presentations, and discussions over coffee about the horrors of which any society is capable. One such day one of my professors decided to speak about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and asked two of my peers to give a presentation on it.

The projector was switched on, lights were switched off, and my two peers took center stage to introduce the class to the topic. At the end of the presentation in a class where several hands routinely raise eager to question presenters, there was pin-drop silence. The professor smiled at the horrid, silent expressions of my classmates and broke the silence to facilitate a discussion. Gradually, all of us formed a consensus that FGM/C is harmful and needs to stop.

After class, I went home and started researching the practice and ended up watching a documentary, The Cut: Exploring FGM by an Al Jazeera correspondent. I read various articles where I learned FGM/C was practiced widely among the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, and this practice was known as khatna. 

My heart sank as I realized that a very close friend by the virtue of being from the community must have undergone FGM/C. As a concerned friend, but with pre-conceived notions and as a judgmental being, I went on to tell my friend that I would always be there to support her through the injustice inflicted upon her. To my surprise, (but should have seen it coming) my friend defended it, stating the various reasons that she had been fed through the years of why it was important for girls to undergo it in the Bohra community. I was shattered. However, I tried not to force my opinions about the practice on her. 

While speaking to a few more (girls and boys) I concluded that the reason behind the practice not being spoken about is because it mainly revolves around female sexuality and religion. The reason that men/boys in the Bohra community did not talk about it or oppose it was that they thought it’s a girl’s issue; whereas the girls who went through it might have felt the need to defend it. And to speak of it publicly, would mean that they would be betraying their religion, especially if they talk about it to an outsider, a Jain like myself. 

Gradually, I started reading stories about FGM/C through initiatives by organizations such as Sahiyo. Fortunately, it made me realize that as an outsider to the community,  it is easy for me to be outraged and criticize any practice which is detrimental to the well-being of girls and women. However, when one grows up with the practice being justified, it takes a lot more than common sense to defy and disobey the practice that has been ingrained in the community for generations

Now my friend has condemned the practice and shared her plight due to khatna, which is when I decided to write my dissertation on harmful practices like FGM/C, where women need to be uplifted without antagonizing the communities which uphold these practices.

Rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women

By Zarina Patel

Khatna, or female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) within the Dawoodi Bohra community, is not a distinct or unique ritual. It has a context and it is important that Bohra women (and men) understand that context if they are to free themselves holistically, not only from the ritual itself, but from all that promotes it. 

Khatna is an imposition of a patriarchal system, a male-controlled system, that seeks to assign a gendered role or designated place for women and imposes rules and regulations to maintain these assigned roles. For women, that role is strictly within the family unit where her duty is first and foremost that of caring for her family, especially the husband or parents; giving birth, including ensuring the survival of humanity; nurturing the progeny; and upholding and promoting this culture and these customs which are largely defined by the patriarchs.

No boy child has his destiny mapped out at birth within the Bohra community, but the idea of a girl child choosing and planning her destiny is considered as entirely secondary and trivial to her so-called God-given role. In this era of the internet and women’s liberation globally, it has seemingly become even more imperative for the patriarchs to keep their women (who, of course, they may consider as their property) in their place.

Nothing works better than religious persuasion, but it so happens that nowhere in the Holy Quran is khatna mentioned, let alone made mandatory. So the patriarchs have concocted a variety of restrictions: women’s dress code is ordained for them; the baggy and unsightly rida is designed to make them feel ashamed of their bodies and to limit their movements; if women must work outside the home, it has to be in family circles or at most in a Bohra environment; if widowed, she must observe total seclusion for four months; associating or travelling with strangers is frowned upon, and so on.

Khatna confers absolutely no benefit, medical or moral, to the girls who are cut. It can be traumatic with long-lasting effects both physical and psychological. It is one more such tradition, which at a very young age instills into the girl child that she is tainted and impure, and hence, it is normal for her to be violated and controlled. Is it surprising then that as adults, most Bohra women meekly accept the various restrictions placed on them.  

But women are the greatest defenders of the practice, we are told. True, very true – and some of those women are doctors and the like, educated, so to speak. 

Sahiyo has done, and is doing sterling work in exposing the harmful practice of khatna, and encouraging opposition to it. The rejection of khatna must be a step in the liberation of Bohra women.

 

Sahiyo hosts first virtual Thaal Pe Charcha

In July 2020, Sahiyo hosted a Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC, loosely translated as discussions over food) with thirteen participants from the Bohra community. Thaal Pe Charcha (TPC) is a flagship Sahiyo programme that brings Bohra women together in an informal, private space, so that they can bond over traditional Bohra cuisine while discussing female genital cutting (FGC) and other issues that affect their lives.

Due to COVID-19, we had to cancel all our on the ground events and organize an online TPC this month. To make the virtual event successful, we incorporated creative activities so that participants could connect and bond with each other despite the physical distance. 

Since the virtual event could not incorporate an actual shared meal, we asked participants to share creative pictures of the food they had eaten that day. Many participants enthusiastically shared these photos to recollect the memories of the in-person TPCs. 

During the web session, we started with describing why we choose to wear a particular color that day inspired by Carl Jung’s color psychology theory. This encouraged us to dress up even though we were in our homes. Then we proceeded to discuss how COVID-19 is impacting our personal and professional lives. Some of the experiences shared included how it is difficult to manage work and caring for young children; some of us lost loved ones during this time; and others shared they were concerned about their finances. We acknowledged that this is a difficult time for everybody.

We also discussed FGC during COVID-19. Ideas about studying what happened with the FGC trend in Africa during the Ebola crisis were shared. Also, interesting thoughts such as how people are following other cultural rituals like the mundan (a ceremony where a child receives their first haircut) during this time might give us insight into the practice of FGC during the pandemic. Worry about the rise of non-medical cutters was shared. It is a known fact that summer vacation sees a rise in the number of cuts and many people from abroad bring their children to India, in what has been classified as vacation cutting. One of the participants confirmed this by sharing how Udaipur (her hometown) sees an influx of diasporic Indians bringing their daughters for the cut every year. However, because of COVID-19, that has not happened this year. 

It was also pointed out that there is a need to have conversations like these and to participate in more webinars because raising awareness can curb future incidents of FGC. We encouraged participants to try and find out if there have been any cuttings during the pandemic, and some of our participants will be getting back to us with the information they receive from the community.

At the end of the event we performed a mirroring activity where we copied each other’s feelings and actions to give us a sense of togetherness.

Why I shared my experience at Voices to End FGM/C with the medical community

By Mariam Sabir

I had the opportunity to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C project with Sahiyo, StoryCenter and The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in November 2019 where a diverse group of survivors and health professionals shared their experiences with FGM/C. 

I am currently a fourth-year medical student at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. I will be applying for residency this year to Family Medicine in the hope to provide a form of care that encompasses all factions of patients’ lives.

Meeting and listening to the stories of these wonderful women empowered me to discover my role in ending FGM/C. My role, I determined, was to increase awareness among health professionals. It is vital that physicians learn to identify survivors during a woman’s physical exam and learn how to approach this sensitive subject with discretion.

Voices_Poster_V3.001 

While having no past experience in presenting FGM/C to the public, I decided that perhaps a poster presentation would be the best initial step. The American Academy of Family Physicians National Conference which is attended by thousands of medical students and residents every year seemed like the perfect opportunity to spark discussion amongst the family physicians who see their patients regularly for annual physicals. My colleague, Zahra Qaiyumi, and I wanted the poster to be engaging while also conveying the statistical data related to FGM/C and a description of the project itself. However, just like the project, it needed to have a personal touch which is why I decided to use pictures of real participants from the project itself, as well as their dialogue.  

Due to COVID-19, the conference shifted to a virtual platform where our poster was displayed in the “Poster Hall” for any member of the conference to view at any time. Although I was unable to engage in lively discussions about FGM/C the way I had imagined, this is just the start to what I hope will be several more medical conferences and presentations.