Forced Clitoridectomies on Athletes

By Masuma Kothari

(Several female athletes have been coerced to undergo partial clitoridectomies to participate in competitive sports. Read about female genital cutting (FGC) in sports here.)

“Let me try to feel this, as if I was you.

As a child I am embellished a rosy world of toys
which could draw up to any passerby without a doubt
what I am.

I grow fast and in symphony my speed at running, too,
adapts, I lean toward the world of athletics and
fitness treats.

I am changing, there are things happening to me,
fine hair shows up where they never were,
softer and fuller I feel,
I start to menstruate.

I definitely know what I am.

My emotions attract me toward wonderful boys,
They lure me into fantasies rolling up my eye.

I definitely know what I am.

All along I perform well, I score medals
after medals, I get noticed with victory bells

I get trained, I sit among the best runners,
my mind shifts into a resilient achiever with thick endurance,
representing every honour, I win all my fears
and I run like a cheetah after his dinner.

I still definitely know what I am.

What more evidence do you need,
I may be gifted
I may look testerone high
but how can you disregard
all that I have?

I am faced with a choice at
the time of my youth
the time when I am bleeding
to reach my dreams from root
Simply put, I have more courage
than being wise
so
I sit under the knife
And now you tell me if that is nice?”

Sahiyo hosts third annual Activist Retreat

Sahiyo held its third annual Activist Retreat in the United States via Zoom from April 10-12. The aim of the retreat was to continue to work toward building a network of U.S.-based Bohra activists against female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) by strengthening relationships with one another, sharing best practices, and providing tools for activists to utilize in their advocacy work moving forward.

Sessions included introduction to mental health and FGM/C, importance of community-led and survivor-led movements, mock conversations on FGM/C, and action planning for 2020. This was the first time that the retreat was open to men. Participants had an opportunity to learn from each other and experts, as well as about Sahiyo’s resources and tools to help public and private activists, and network to make lifelong connections.

The retreat was also an opportunity for activists to discuss both challenges and opportunities they have found in advocating against FGM/C. At the end of the retreat, each participant committed to an action to help end the practice of FGM/C.

FGM/C in sports: Why some female athletes are being coerced into partial clitoridectomy

By Zahra Qaiyumi 

Imagine you are a professional female athlete who is told that you must agree to undergo a partial clitoridectomy in order to continue participating in your sport. This might sound like a far-fetched scenario, but due to an International Olympic Committee (IOC) policy, this is a reality for some hyperandrogenic athletes. Partial clitoridectomy falls under the classification of female genital mutilation/cutting (FMG/C), a practice that is recognized internationally as a violation of the rights of girls and women. 

Hyperandrogenism is characterized by high levels of testosterone in females. Individuals with hyperandrogenism often present with an enlarged clitoris, excess hair growth, acne, and decreased breast size, among other characteristics. High testosterone levels can be caused by many different conditions, including polycystic ovarian syndrome and androgen-secreting tumors. 

Testosterone levels have caused long-standing controversy in the realm of professional athletics. Many believe that higher than average testosterone provides some female athletes with an unfair competitive advantage. One olympian, South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya, has been at the center of this debate in recent years. Semenya, 29, has attempted to appeal a new policy regulating the testosterone levels of female middle-distance runners by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) with little success thus far. The policy mandates that female athletes with differences in sex development (hyperandrogenism) must demonstrate a testosterone level of less than 5 nmol/L. This value must be maintained for a period of time before and during international competition in order to remain eligible. 

By enacting this policy, the IAAF is equating elevated androgen production with athletic advantage. The reality, however, is that there is no universally agreed upon scientific evidence that establishes a relationship between excess endogenous androgen production, or androgens that are produced naturally by the body, and athletic advantage in female athletes.

The IAAF’s policy, although controversial, does not require or recommend any surgical alteration of the bodies of female athletes. However, similar regulations enacted in years past have lead to unintended consequences, such as coercion into FGM/C. In 2014, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also established a policy to regulate hyperandrogenism in female athletes. The IOC’s policy mandates that national Olympic committees “actively investigate any perceived deviation in sex characteristics.” This investigation includes observation of the athlete’s genitals by doping officers while providing a urine sample. If an enlarged clitoris is observed, this counts against the athlete as a perceived deviation in sex characteristics. 

The IOC policies surrounding hyperandrogenism have caused unintended outcomes as countries attempt to comply with the rules. Most notably, medical procedures were performed on four young female athletes who were found to have hyperandrogenism. The procedures performed included a partial clitoridectomy and gonadectomy (in this case given the underlying condition, removal of the testes). The gonadectomy procedure resulted in the removal of a part of the body that produces androgens, thus technically serving the IOC’s goal to regulate hyperandrogenism. However, the partial clitoridectomy did not serve any medical purpose, and in no way related to actual or perceived athletic advantage. 

As stated earlier, partial clitoridectomy is a form of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Performing the procedure on these four young women is antithetical to the decades-long mission to end FGM/C globally, which has been addressed by the World Health Organization. In terms of its impact on the individual, partial clitoridectomy has the potential to cause life-long biological and psychological consequences, including damage to sexual sensation and function for these athletes. Notably, the athletes were perfectly healthy before this procedure was performed and were in compliance with the IOC’s policies regarding cheating and doping. 

The IOC and IAAF policies regarding hyperandrogenism, though not meant to undermine medical recommendations, have put some female athletes in danger of undergoing unnecessary clitoridectomy. Many countries take the loosely-worded policy and create country-specific guidelines for compliance. This leads to the policing of young female athletes and placing pressure on them to undergo unnecessary procedures such as the partial clitoridectomy, which is a human rights violation.

Why are we doing this? A Thaal pe Charcha participant questions female genital cutting

By Anonymous

Country of Residence: India

Age: 32

I have been part of the Sahiyo Thaal Pe Charcha group meetings for a while and have found it an eye-opening concept. The more I’ve been involved, I’ve become more aware of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). In the first meeting, I came to know it as a social stigma that we women face due to misguided traditions. Knowing that more people support the cause made me feel a bit more confident to talk about it. Hearing about the issue of FGM/C made me more aware that people blindly do it because their familes do it. Some of them may do it out of fear and for the approval of society.

During the recent February meeting we were shown a movie, A Girl from Mogadishu, based on the life of a Somalian FGM/C survivor and activist, Ifrah Ahmed. Her whole life she believed the tradition of FGM/C needed to be followed, as her ancestors did the same, so she never questioned it. But migration opened her eyes to the fact that what happened to her was not right. She did not deserve to suffer pain just because her society carried this practice for centuries blindly.

I, myself, find a lot of people like my family and friends who are afraid to ask the questions: Why are we doing this? Is it necessary to hurt a girl in childhood? That psychological wound is so deep and may never be healed.

No one can remember their childhood memories perfectly, but when something painful happens for some, it’s impossible to forget. I really want more people to share their experiences, come out of denial and support the cause to pledge to not let the next generation or anyone undergo the same pain they, themselves, might have undergone.

How COVID-19 may increase gender-based violence, including FGM/C

The UNFPA and UNICEF Joint Program on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) released a technical note about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect women and girls adversely in regard to violence and inequalities. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to allow an additional two million cases of FGM/C due to restricted movement and confinement of people globally, disrupting the Sustainable Development Goal 5.3: Eliminating FGM/C by 2030. The closing of schools, restricted mobility and the inevitability of health care workers prioritizing COVID-19 patients heightens the need for supporting community-based women and youth groups identifying at-risk girls vulnerable to violence, including FGM/C.

The brief is meant as a guide for UNFPA and UNICEF Joint Program staff and partners, other United Nations agencies, governments, civil society, and non-governmental organizations, on how to assess the impact COVID-19 may have on FGM/C programs. The call to action includes integrating FGM/C in COVID-19 preparedness and response plans; access to prevention, protection, and care services and community-based protection; alternative approaches to community-based interventions promoting the abandonment of FGM/C; opportunities presented by the pandemic; and adaptive monitoring and evaluation.

 

Sahiyo Partner Organization Highlight: StoryCenter

StoryCenter creates spaces for transforming lives and communities, through the acts of listening to and sharing stories as a vehicle for education, community mobilization, and advocacy. Since 1993, they have helped over 20,000 individuals tell their stories. They collaborate with organizations around the world on workshops in story facilitation, digital storytelling, and other forms of participatory media production. In 2018, Sahiyo, in partnership with StoryCenter, launched an inaugural digital storytelling workshop. Nine women’s stories have since elevated the conversation about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in the U.S. and globally. The stories were distributed online and via media channels, as well as at live community screening events. They are being used as educational tools to support discussion among survivors within their communities, with a focus on challenging the social norms sanctioning FGM/C, and encouraging an end to the practice. Sahiyo is honored to have Amy Hill, StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks director, partner with Sahiyo on the Voices to End FGM/C project to expand the number of digital stories since the first 2018 workshop.

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

I first met Mariya when she attended a digital storytelling workshop I was leading with alumni of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute in 2017. She produced a stunning video about her own journey of sharing her female genital cutting story, as part of her advocacy efforts against the practice. I had always been interested in doing work on the topic as part of our global women’s rights efforts, and I felt that Mariya, with her focus on personal storytelling as method for breaking the silence, ending stigma, and building leadership among women for speaking out against FGM/C, would be the perfect collaborating partner. I approached her, and together, we put on a pilot digital storytelling workshop for women survivors of FGM/C. It was a deeply powerful experience for everyone involved. I think even Mariya and I were a little surprised by how effective StoryCenter’s core methodology in digital storytelling was, for working with this issue.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo and StoryCenter as a joint partnership involve?

Our first digital storytelling workshop grew into a global effort called Voices to End FGM/C, which brings survivors and advocates from practicing communities together to share stories and craft them into short digital videos as a way of building nurturing, healing relationships and solidarity, and mobilizing the storytellers to become further involved in efforts to address and prevent cutting. So far we’ve done a total of four digital storytelling workshops: three in person, and one fully online, to create a collection of more than 40 poignant and compelling short videos. Mariya and I have co-facilitated all of the workshops, and Sahiyo has done a brilliant job of continuing to engage with the storytellers afterward. They’ve written blog postings about the storytelling experience, made presentations at public screenings and conferences and more. Sahiyo’s skill in getting the stories out into the world is almost unparalleled in my 20-year history of work at StoryCenter. They are very sophisticated with social media outreach and have been able to bring a lot of media attention to the stories, which is exciting. 

Voices23

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your own organization’s work?

Speaking of social media, StoryCenter helps people create amazing content that can be circulated widely online and via mobile phones, and yet our main focus has typically been not on distribution, but on putting together and facilitating participatory media workshops that truly enhance the wellbeing of storytellers. While all of my work has focused explicitly on how stories can be useful in the world for creating change, it’s not the norm for our programs. But the Voices to End FGM/C project has inspired more of our staff to push for innovative ways to publicly circulate stories that come out of our processes, and Sahiyo’s Communications Coordinator even met recently with one of my colleagues who is jump-starting our Instagram presence and was interested in looking at Sahiyo’s approach to featuring the Voices stories as a model. We’ve also joined the U.S. Network to End FGM/C, which is exciting for us to be part of a larger group of individuals and organizations committed to ensuring future generations of girls do not go through what some of our Voices storytellers have endured, as a result of being cut. Our partnership with Sahiyo has evolved so beautifully and organically. I feel that it has helped me trust more than I already did the idea that our work at StoryCenter has to be based on solid human relationships and shared visions for change, rather than on rigid agendas or desires to be successful in a conventional way.

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

Stories matter. Everyone’s voice is worthy of being heard, and creating spaces where individual perspectives can be aired, where people’s pain can be witnessed, really does build solidarity and is essential to movement-building. FGM/C is a form of trauma; trauma fractures our ability to connect in healthy, intimate ways; and storytelling is a way to repair those rifts, to enable people to find solace and support and strength for the difficult parts of the journey together. 

 

Unspoken

By Naima Dido

I wish I could finally say to you the words stuck in my throat, 

Behind my teeth and scattered on my tongue,

With you, I live on eggshells,

I don’t know how to tell you that I noticed that your days were filled with half-veiled insults,

I was praised serving tea the right way, 

Preparing to be a wife,

Soon the ear will be pierced. 

I don’t know how to find the words to tell you,

Away from you everything is new,

Painted with memories of you and beautifully tainted with old ways, 

And yes, the missing parts.

And if I could, 

I would say to you that the missing parts of me aren’t the only parts of my body that are hurting, 

That sometimes when I sit and watch my daughter play, 

And my throat starts to constrict, 

While my tear ducts prepare for the warm flight of my pain, 

I still remember the sound of the razor blade leaving its paper cover,

And I still feel the moment the blade cuts my flesh,

How my blood sparkled against the light as it raced between my legs, 

Escaping my body, 

You watched as I wept. 

I wish I could say to you that I fantasize about telling you these words,

that are years overdue, 

And no, I’m not okay, 

I still don’t know how to find the words to tell you of my inherited sorrows, 

Of the joy of my new life, 

The last time we spoke, 

You said I didn’t care about you, 

You’re mistaken,

I do; I just don’t know how to show it. 

Maybe I’m not making any sense, 

The real words have morphed themselves into metaphors, 

Suppressed too long, 

To the root of this mess, 

I want to say that I’m sorry I wasn’t stronger for you 

And for me, 

Now as I roam the world, 

I carry with me our pain 

Crafted into tools for my success, 

They find a way—the thorns life may throw to the next in line,

My sweet B.

(Naima Dido participated in Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C workshop. You can read her reflection piece here and watch her video below.)

Sri Lanka’s first survey on FGM/C: Survivors need space to talk and access to medical care

By Jumana S.

“It should not be up to the elders to stamp the body of a girl child at the age of seven, (a process that is irreversible irrespective of the extent of damage), and decide what her religious convictions should be.”
– Jamila, Dawoodi Bohra survivor of FGC, Colombo 

This fundamental right that every thinking individual commands is articulated by a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) in a first of its kind report for the country titled, “Towards Understanding Female Genital Cutting in Sri Lanka.” 

The report, published by the Family Planning Association of Sri Lanka, is the very first research study detailing the status of FGC in the country. It highlights the absence of dialogue, absence of awareness of the issue among medical practitioners, and also the unique political situation in the country that makes public discussion on the issue susceptible to ethnic controversy. 

Released in December 2019, this detailed study interviewed 26 survivors with three main objectives: to understand the practice of FGC from the perspective of survivors; to interpret the practice in relation to their health, sexual pleasure, bodily integrity and relationship with family, community and faith; and to engage medical practitioners to help with solutions with the findings of the first two objectives. 

Amongst the many shocking findings of the study, what overwhelms is the absolute absence of dialogue on the subject until about three years ago in the country. Hence, not only the survivors do not have a recourse for psychological counselling for their personal trauma, but the medical fraternity is also not equipped to deal with complications arising due because of it in sexual health and childbirth. 

“Medical professionals were not aware of the practice until recently, and in the belief that it does not take place, had not looked for signs of it and it did not form part of routine examinations that are usually centered on reproductive concerns. Further that it may be difficult to observe, most doctors had not received formal training on the practice in Sri Lanka,” the report states. 

As for the wider dialogue and understanding of the issue, the report notes that, “It is in the last few years – from 2016 onwards – that the practice of female genital cutting has surfaced in public dialogue in Sri Lanka, including in the media. A few women, primarily from the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, came forward to speak about their experiences and ask the state for a response to stop this practice.” However, what preceded this, as recently as 2008, was a circular by the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) of Sri Lanka, that had issued a fatwa on ‘female circumcision’ in response to a query from a member of the public, saying it is obligatory and recommended, citing religious teachings as well as the view that circumcision is important to maintain cleanliness of the genitals and ‘for enjoyment in family life’ (ACJU, 2008).

In the consultation, 23 out of 26 survivors (88%) said their influencer was a woman with 17 of them claiming  it was their mother. The justification for the cutting given by the respondents were that it is perceived as a religious requirement; a means of establishing ‘Muslim identity’; for controling women’s sexual feelings; medically beneficial; a customary ritual; for improving sexual partners’ interest; and for improving sexual experience of the woman. The consultations revealed a notable trend of very little conviction and understanding of why the practice was followed. The reasons were not always strongly held and the justifications often relied on the interpretation of theological positions. 

Based on consultations, the researchers came up with six observations. The key is the absence of space for survivors to reflect and talk. “Women need spaces, conversation starters, information and solidarity to navigate the complexities that surfaced,” the report claims. 

Two critical observations are about the absence of formal training on the practice and the reluctance of medical professionals to engage. “FGC was not part of the medical training received in Sri Lanka,” as noted in the observations. “All medical professionals in the consultations stated they had not received training on the issue.”

Moreover, explaining the reluctance of the medical fraternity in engaging with the issue, the report observed, “Medical professionals expressed a reluctance to speak or engage publicly on the practice for the reason that such measures may be misconstrued as measures motivated by religious intolerance targeting a minority community. It spoke to the sense that the political context was not favourable to the Muslim community and there were strong possibilities that disruptive elements would create opportunity for mischief causing victimisation of Muslims, and drawing medical professionals and institutions into political conflicts.” 

A unique observation that comes out is the context of the dialogue in the incumbent political atmosphere in the country. The report underlines this at outset, as well as in the conclusion, that while addressing the issue, one needs to be “sensitive to the local context of intolerance and possible victimisation that public discussion of the issue may lead to.” The report, in its final recommendations, urges for “a non-judgmental and non-discriminatory approach for working on FGC in Sri Lanka.” 

Another recommendation that stands out is its insistence on understanding and addressing concerns raised by women of the Dawoodi Bohra community, “as the experiences of Dawoodi Bohra women of FGC in this consultation appears to be of a more severe form than that practiced by others in Sri Lanka.” 

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Zahra Qaiyumi

Zahra Qaiyumi completed her undergraduate education at The University of Maryland, studying Physiology, Neurobiology, and Spanish. Afterward, she pursued a Master’s degree in Physiology at Georgetown University. She then moved to the Bay Area and participated in neurobehavioral research while working with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school at the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University. 

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

I have been following Sahiyo’s work as an organization for many years, but decided to get involved in the fall of 2019 during what was a rough patch in my personal life for a few reasons, khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), being one of them. 

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a volunteer, I have written pieces interpreting research on FGC, as well as helped put together abstracts and posters in order to disseminate Sahiyo’s work to healthcare providers, survivors, social works, and law enforcement, among other groups. I hope to do more of this type of work with Sahiyo in the future. 

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

As someone who grew up in a community where FGC was the norm, my involvement with Sahiyo has been an integral part to self-actualization and healing. I joined Sahiyo at a time where I desperately needed allies who understood my personal struggles with FGC. Since joining, I have been able to use my personal experiences and integrate them with work that will positively impact my career as a healthcare professional. 

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

Sahiyo has taught me that joining a community of peers that are just like you, that have been impacted by the same circumstances you have, can be healing in so many ways. Using experiences that are deeply personal to you in order to make change in the world, no matter how small, is liberating. I encourage anyone who is looking to feel such liberation to support Sahiyo in their goal to end FGC.

Supporting each other through COVID-19 and continuing our efforts to end female genital cutting

Dear Sahiyo community,

We’re writing to let you know that we are so grateful to have you be part of the Sahiyo community, and even though we are living in unprecedented times with the COVID-19 pandemic and our everyday lives look different right now, we’re committed to helping you stay connected to us and our mission to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in meaningful ways.

Around the globe, the Sahiyo team was already working remotely, however, we have cancelled all of our in-person events for the months of March, April, and May and are taking the necessary steps to ensure that we can provide virtual options for community members and survivors affected by FGC who need our support where possible. 

Here are a few ideas on how you can continue to connect with us:

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Bottom line, reach out. We may have to socially distance from each other in person for awhile, but we can connect and further our advocacy work to support survivors and protect future generations of girls from FGC in other ways.

We will not let girls, women and communities impacted by FGC get left behind. Sahiyo continues to partner, share and advocate globally for an end to the practice. We hope that through adversity, positivity will win through, and we can learn new, innovative ways of working as we come through this crisis together. 

Sending love, solidarity, and gratitude to you and your loved ones,

~ Sahiyo