Population Council hosts second webinar on FGM/C research

By Hunter Kessous

The Population Council recently 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, studying FGM/C, and researched how initiatives to end the practice may be optimized. 

Speakers included Bettina Shell-Duncan, University of Washington Seattle (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, Nada 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 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. 

Nafissatou 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.

 

On the path to healing: My journey after experiencing female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: United States

Every woman that has been cut has a story to tell. I tell my story not to offer a universal account of female genital cutting (FGC), but one that is specific to me. At a young age, I underwent Type II female genital cutting, known specifically as “taharah” (purification) within the Egyptian community, in which only part of the clitoral hood was removed and partial removal of the labia minora/majora. The taharah took place in Cairo, Egypt, while visiting relatives. This was the second time I visited my parent’s homeland. My parents were unaware, or at least this is what I’d like to believe, of what had occurred, as my sister was in a coma at the time and her prognosis was poor. They agreed that I travel to their homeland with my auntie to avoid the negative effects of witnessing what my sister was going through. My aunties had convinced me that this was a rite of passage, and what I was about to embark on would make me a “woman.” 

One week after arriving in Cairo, my auntie took me to a medical office where a doctor performed the surgery. She remained in the room while I underwent FGC, while my other auntie waited by the phone to hear the “good news.” I have no recollection of the surgery, as I was under anesthesia. However, I awoke to excruciating pain that would last for weeks. I remember my family members visiting to celebrate—bearing money and gifts. Upon returning home my parents realized that something was different about me. Already small-framed, I had lost ten pounds. I notified them of what occurred, and I remember them speaking with my aunties. However, the details of the discussion were unknown to me.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In 2001, while taking a women’s psychology course, I learned that FGC was considered a human rights violation. Students in the class, including those from countries where this was practiced, were surprised and “disgusted” that FGC continued to be practiced. I was taken aback, as I had assumed this was a custom that many practiced. I began opening up to female friends from similar and varying backgrounds. I quickly discovered I was alone in having had it done to me.

I started looking into the practice of FGC and found that there were many factors contributing to the perpetuation of FGC. Some linked it to geographical location, religion, customs, sexuality, marriageability and education. I realized this was a complicated custom that could not simply be thought of as being continued by “ignorant” people. In fact, much of my family are college educated, wealthy, and progressive in terms of religion, and advocate for the rights of women. However, the reasons given for its continuation had been rationalized by them and somehow given cultural significance. I needed answers, and began a long journey that would ultimately lead to my decision to become a social worker, and work with women who have also been cut.

Mapping the Healing Journey

I was left feeling extremely confused, particularly as most of my family had decided to discontinue the practice due to religious reasons (stating that FGC is “haram” or a sin, and is not a “sunnah” or religious obligation. I searched for answers—or perhaps a place where I would feel accepted and learn to accept myself. I immediately reached out to gynecologists, gender violence organizations, and social workers. Much to my dismay, all were unaware of the FGC practice. Gynecologists stared blankly at my genitals stating, “At first glance, it looks intact.” However, they were unsure the extent of the “damage” done. Gender violence organizations stated that they dealt with different forms of gender violence. “This isn’t something we specialize in,” I was told. They referred me to organizations that had more familiarity. However, they were located overseas.

Social workers were unfamiliar with the practice but verbalized their strong beliefs about it. They reacted with words such as “disgusting,” “barbaric,” and “horrific.” They “encouraged” and “empowered” me to advocate for change against the oppressive practice that they assumed was justified by Islam and patriarchal oppression. They also questioned the reasons that parents would allow for such a thing to happen to their little girl. This was extremely difficult to hear given my close relationship with my parents. I walked away feeling judged, ashamed, and defective. For the first time, I began to experience symptoms of depression, which led me to become more embarrassed and secretive about what had occurred. 

Approximately eight years later, while reading a newspaper article, I came across the name of a Sudanese woman who started a grassroots organization for women who have been cut. The only experience I knew was one in which providers gawked at me when I told them what had occurred. I reached out to this woman, and she invited me to dinner to speak on a more personal level. Upon arriving to the restaurant, I was greeted with a warm smile. For the first hour of our meeting, she did not bring up the conversation of FGC. Surprised, I inquired, “So are we going to talk about… you know.” She replied, “When you’re ready, I am here to listen.” For the first time in a long time, I felt acknowledged, understood, accepted, and supported. We all begin our journey of healing somewhere. I am delighted to be a part of the Sahiyo team—and truly look forward to being a part of the healing process for others.

I Said It Loudly: I am an FGM Survivor. Meeting FGM Survivors for the First Time Was My Cursed Blessing

(Note: The following blog was written by a survivor who attended a meeting, the topic of which was on mental health and FGC. Her story highlights the power of storytelling and how it helps break the isolation that many survivors experience in having undergone FGC and dealing with their trauma afterwards, an isolation that Sahiyo is attempting to break via the storytelling work we engage in with communities.)

By Anonymous

Country: Egypt & United States

Even now, despite my brain trying to convince me it was a good idea to attend a conference on FGM and Mental Health, I cannot emotionally explain what really happened that day. The conference consisted of FGM survivors, human rights advocates, therapists, and policymakers, and almost two weeks after having attended, I started to have stronger flashbacks of the terrible experience I underwent with FGM in my home country, Egypt. I have mixed feelings of love, support, and pain for having attended that conference.

My journey dealing with that horrible experience started in my home country where my rights as a human being were violated without my consent. I was bleeding and almost died having been operated upon twice. Even now, I cannot easily write these words. You may wish to read my full story published here.

The experience of meeting with other survivors from India and other countries was something I strongly needed to help bring me face to face with the many answers to the many questions in my mind regarding why I experienced so much anxiety, sadness, depression, panic, and fear after my cutting. I wanted to know how other survivors had dealt with their FGM especially those who spoke up about it publicly, such as (Mariya Taher, Leyla Hussien, Jaha Dukureh , Naima Abdulhadi, and others) ; I am relatively new to openly talking about it and I still feel as if I am climbing a mountain when trying to share or speak about it. I heard these women saying how it was and is still difficult; and listening to them has helped me to feel that I am not alone in my experience. I saw how powerful the pain of this experience can be, but at the same time was inspired by the courage of what they and I were determined to do. To speak up about FGM openly and to try to prevent it from happening to other girls.

That meeting was the first time I met with and spoke to other survivors from different countries, such as the United Kingdom, Gambia, India, not to mention the United States. At the time, I felt happy that this meeting could serve as a comfort zone for me, knowing others understood what I had gone through. Seeing all those women in that room encouraged me to say amongst the group of almost forty members that I too am a FGM SURVIVOR. I knew these women would not shame me and I did not need to fear being labeled, judged, or threatened for publicly admitting I was a survivor. My heart was beating and my breath was short as if I had climbed a mountain. I thought I was ok during the 8-hour meeting, yet I collapsed and burst into tears at the end; I cannot precisely tell you why, but I thought about how it is unfair that our bodies and souls are violated with this harmful crime. Most of the time I feel sad that I had to go through these painful thoughts, feelings, or flashback of the operation room and after. It feels like I am being retraumatized when something happens to trigger the original trauma of FGM.  

I beg every mom and dad to see their daughters as beautiful souls who do not need to be cut to be pure. I am Muslim, and I can say it strongly, clearly, and angrily: Do not make it religious because it is not. My body was not supposed to be violated in this severe way nor was my soul. Yet, both happened. But I am comforted in knowing that there are others who I can talk to who understand my pain. FGM is a crime and more work needs to be done with healthcare professionals, as well as policy makers. Girls must be protected from being cut and survivors should be supported with the needed assistance to help them heal.