How COVID-19 impacts programs devoted to ending gender-based violence, including female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, so it is unsurprising that gender-based violence (GBV), including female genital cutting (FGC), has also been affected. Hidden Scars and Magool came together to co-host the Africa Led Movement Webinar series. In May, I had the pleasure of attending the second part of the series which addressed GBV during the current pandemic. 

Speakers included Bethel Tadesse, Hidden Scars; Leyla Hussein, Magool; Wanjiru Wahome, Samburu Girls Foundation; Christine Alfons, Safe Engage Foundation; and Domtila Chesang, I Am Responsible Foundation (I Rep Foundation)

Three panelists, Wahome, Alfons and Chesang, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their work. Wahome and Chesang have both noticed an increase in GBV, specifically FGC, rape, and domestic violence. They add that the Kenyan government has forcibly closed all safe houses, sending thousands of girls back to their homes. Coupled with the closure of schools and the restriction of movement, more girls and women are stuck in places where they are not safe or comfortable. Additionally, it seems as if GBV may be the least of the government’s priorities in Kenya, as all resources and focus are currently being devoted to the pandemic. Alfons noted that in her region of Kenya, FGC only occurs every two years. Therefore, FGC is not rising in cases at the moment, but child marriage has increased significantly. 

The panelists were asked how their organizations have responded to the rise in violence prompted by the pandemic. All three are using the radio as a tool to prevent FGC by interviewing healthcare professionals and community leaders on air and playing jingles to remind listeners not to cut their girls. Upon hearing the devastating news of the closed rescue houses, I was relieved to hear that Wahome and Chesang have been going door-to-door to check on the girls they had to send back home. Alfons has been working to get girls sanitary products. Additionally, Alfons’ volunteers are making masks and supplying them to at-risk girls and women. 

In a vulnerable moment, they spoke with honesty about how the pandemic has personally impacted them. They shared the sentiment that their work has been frustrating and emotionally draining. I’m certain many advocactes would agree when Chesang stated this is not a job; it is personal, and you take it with you wherever you go. Alfons relies on other activists to stay sane. The panelists were asked what gives them hope to continue, and I found Wahome’s answer to be particularly poignant. She says when a girl is rescued, at the time she is viewed as a wife, but within a few months she transforms back into a child. 

Finally, the panelists shared what their asks would be if they could ask anything at all of the viewers. Chesang wishes for a car, or even just fuel, to allow her to visit at-risk girls and women more easily and more often. Wahome’s organization is in need of food to take the girls, as the virus has left many families without any income. Alfonso asks for sanitary pads, food, and assistance in building a website to better spread their message and work. If any readers can offer assistance, please visit their websites (linked above) or reach out to Bethel Tadesse for contact information. 

The webinar ended with an important call to action: keep amplifying the voices of the grassroots organizations working to end FGC and GBV. For more information on how the virus is impacting programs devoted to ending FGC and GBV, read here.

A response to the letter written by Tasneem Yunus Burhani, Mubaraka Tambawala, Farida Mustafa Hussain, Fatemah Hussain, and Shakera Bohra published in Detroit News

By Umme Kulsoom Arif

In response to your letter published in The Detroit News,Dawoodi Bohra Women of Detroit speak up,” I write to you as a woman who grew up in a part of the Dawoodi Bohra community, just like you. I am also a woman of faith and education, a woman who loves her country as well as her Dawoodi Bohra community, who balances religion and patriotism in a trying, divisive time. And just like you, I am frustrated and saddened by the propaganda and misinformation that has spread surrounding the case of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala because I too am a survivor. A survivor of a harmful practice that violated my human rights, robbed me of my personal integrity, and — in punishing me for my own femininity — left me permanently scarred, both mentally and physically: khaftz.

Wikimedia commons

You claim that khaftz “in no way can be defined as female genital mutilation,” but do you know what FGM even is? The World Health Organization defines FGM/C as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” So educate me, then — what is the medical reason for khaftz? Why must it be done? Why must a girl be lied to, held down, or drugged so that a blade can be taken to her genitals and a part of her clitoris sliced away?

You call the procedure “harmless,” so I ask you — where does the harm begin in your minds? Where do you draw the line between the “ritual” you defend and the “more barbaric practices from around the world” you claim to condemn? Is it not harmful to deny your daughter the right to her own bodily autonomy? Is it not harmful to violate her right to be free of torture and degrading treatment and to teach her that her body is “wrong” and must be surgically altered based on the words of religious men?

The Quran does not ask this of us, so I ask you — who does? When countries around the world — including the United States — have signed human rights treaties both condemning and outlawing all forms of FGM, who demands that our daughters be subjected to a cutting or scraping without their consent and with no medical reasoning behind it?

Though you claim to be patriotic Americans who follow all the laws of the land, you challenge a law meant to protect the most vulnerable members of the country’s population — its children. How can you in good conscience, claim that khaftz is “much more akin to a body piercing” when a child would never consider getting a piercing in such a sensitive area?

Many of you are lucky to have suffered no consequences — physically or mentally — from khaftz, but your experiences are far from universal. You lie to yourselves when you purport to be representative of all the survivors of the khaftz. You lie to your daughters when you claim that there are no negative effects to the practice. You do a disservice to your community when you hide the truth of this harmful form of gender-based violence behind pleas for tolerance and claims of political persecution. By claiming that your experiences are universal and by defending this harmful practice, you have a direct hand in perpetuating violence against women.

Is that the future of the Dawoodi Bohra community? A future where we must look our children in the eyes and tell them that they have no ownership of their bodies? A future where our daughters must be subjected to sexual trauma and placed at risk for future infection, for future complications in childbirth, or for chronic pain in a most sensitive area? The Dawoodi Bohra community cannot adhere to archaic violence in the name of tradition. The world around us has changed, and today we know more about our bodies and the consequences of our actions than we ever did. We must grow as people, as a community. We must come together to help, not harm.

You may be educated women, but you blind yourself to the true nature of khaftz and its harm. You beg for tolerance and understanding but you do not try to understand the pain you inflict on your daughters when you have them cut. I beg you to take the time to listen to women the world over who have been harmed by khaftz.

Read also “Other Views on FGM.”

Sahiyo participates in Canadian webinar on FGC

On May 23, the Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWaCH) hosted a unique webinar to help Canadian social sector organisations get acquainted with the practice of Female Genital Cutting. As an organisation working to end the practice in India and other Asian countries, Sahiyo was invited to present some of its work during the webinar.

CanWaCH is an Ottawa-based umbrella organisation with a focus on women’s health and gender equity. Its members come from across civil society, research and health sectors. The webinar on May 23 was for CanWaCH’s member organisations as well as the wider public, and it aimed to stimulate greater participation from Canadian NGOs, charities and institutions in the global movement to end FGC. Through presentations by various global organisations already working in the field of ending FGC, the webinar focused on sharing knowledge and best practices with the audience.

 

Participants included Anne-Marie Kamanye and Peter Nguura from Amref, a CanWaCH member organisation that has anti-FGC programmes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda; Jenna Richards from Orchid Project, a UK-based organisation that supports anti-FGC partners in Senegal, Kenya and India, among others; Aarefa Johari from Sahiyo; and Alissa Koski from McGill University in Canada. Sahiyo shared information about the key elements required in an individual or organisation’s efforts to end FGC. Koski discussed the methods and challenges of conducting monitoring and evaluation of anti-FGC programmes.

Amnesty India features Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut in its ‘Brave’ campaign

Leading human rights organisation Amnesty India has featured Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut — the two collectives working to end Female Genital Cutting in India — in its new campaign titled “Brave”.

The campaign aims to highlight the work of individuals and groups working to defend human rights, truth, and justice in India, despite facing threats, attacks and other kinds of backlash.

amnesty

Other brave individuals featured in the campaign are: Chandrashekhar Azad, who founded the Bhim Army to fight for Dalit rights in Uttar Pradesh; Sagolsem Menor Singh, who campaigns for justice for the families of those killed in fake encounters in Manipur; and Gauri Lankesh, the journalist and human rights activist who was shot dead for her views last year.

Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have been recognised for raising their voices against a taboo topic: the ritual of cutting young girls’ genitals in the name of culture and religion. During the course of the year, the Amnesty campaign will help support and amplify Sahiyo’s work.

Read more about the Brave campaign here.

Violated hopes: My struggle to report on Female Genital Cutting in Pakistan

By Hina Javed

Country: Pakistan

When sporting my journalistic hat, I tend to sniff out stories from unlikely sources, wherever they are hidden. I look out for news, dropping into places to see what is new. This time around, however, I wasn’t particularly looking for a story. I was just making small talk with a friend, who I would call Amber, sipping tea in the chilly, wintry breeze; the stillness of time hanging heavy in the thin air; the late afternoon light filtering through the branches of a tree.

Amber kept rambling about her married life and parental responsibilities, and how both were in permanent need of repairs or adjustments like an old car needs maintenance. I pretended to listen to her, albeit inattentively, all the while thinking about the most plausible excuse for not meeting a story deadline. And just in that moment, I snapped out of my reverie at the mention of the word khatna (also known as circumcision).

Suddenly, my eyes and ears were attentive, in perfect union. In that rare and curious moment, I dared to ask her if she was talking about Female Genital Cutting, a practice I thought did not exist in Pakistan. For a split second, I thought I might have violated an unwritten code of ethics. Maybe I had not phrased the question to fit the language of social architecture. It was too late now, but I still tried to rephrase the question, spitting out tiny fragments of sentences; struggling to find the right words and dwelling on the worst possible response.

The response was startling, if not dreadful. All this while, she was complaining about her 10-year-old daughter who had recently been cut and refused to urinate for several hours. Amber was worried that her daughter would develop an infection if she held it for too long. Perhaps, for me, this was the worst part. This limbo of not knowing whether to ask more questions, given the sensitivity of the topic. But, I gave in and flooded her with queries.

If there is one thing Amber knows about me is that I listen keenly without ever coming across as judgmental. I assume it’s because of my profession. People never ask me what I think, and I never tell them what I think, because in my view that’s the way a journalist is ought to behave.

The initial conversation got me thinking. I made several attempts to talk to Amber and determine the extent of the issue. She would mostly respond in bits and pieces, leaving me more confused than ever. One day, however, she started talking more openly; justifying the practice and expressing concerns over how misunderstood her community is. It was in that fleeting moment that I knew I had plunged into murky waters. I was ready to write my next story, except I was in a state of moral anarchy.

As I investigated the matter further for my piece, I realized something important had changed. The social architecture that dismisses the inconvenient truth of FGC was changing fast, but only among the younger generation of Bohra women. Outsiders, however, were still largely unaware of the practice. These women were speaking up in numbers too big to ignore. What was holding them, however, was the horror of bringing shame to their families and a subsequent fear of revealing a reality that would rather be rationalized away.

Listening to the stories of vulnerable women gave me sleepless nights. I felt burdened with a sense of responsibility too heavy for my shoulders to carry. They had expectations too great for me to fulfill; each one of them hanging on to the hope that my story will stir up a conversation in Pakistan and possibly bring an end to this practice.

A month later, I had almost finished writing the story despite my own uncertainties and misgivings. In my limited experience as a young journalist, I had done stories on sensitive topics but nothing came close to this. To counter my persisting doubts, I had the story edited by a trusted senior colleague who showed nothing but the greatest respect for my brave efforts. I was finally starting to feel a sense of gratification; a tiny ray of hope for giving a voice to the voiceless. I was ready to put it out before the general public. However, the journey was far from over.

The path ahead was ridden with disappointment. Pakistani media organisations refused to lay a finger on the piece due to sensitivities. I was told that I had crossed the comfort zone for the general public. The article caused a stir and went through clearance after clearance; each time censoring important chunks of information and eventually being turned down.  

I was aware of my country’s heavily censored media and the difficulties journalists had to overcome to report sensitive topics. However, my experience landed me on a different playing field altogether; one that was far from level. I was now a victim of the epidemic of shameful silencing. I was among the people who were hurt, humiliated and degraded because I had made the mistake of speaking out. I had forgotten that stirring up a conversation would dismantle the stronghold of patriarchy. I was asked to retreat and swallow my resentment, to bear up and direct my fury elsewhere. Or turn it inwards. Or stomp it out altogether.

As I sit here in silence, I feel the guilt of betraying the survivors and the fury of being betrayed by the so-called representatives. The former, a betrayal of hopes and expectations. The latter, a betrayal of attitudes. This unbearable pressure has crept into me like a blazing fire – at first slow but fast turning into an inferno. I exist in perpetual isolation and emotional turmoil. I am left to untangle the web of reasons why all my efforts backfired. I wallow in the awareness that no one will ever acknowledge the existence of an otherwise contested practice in my country. Every time I think about taking a small step in a positive direction, I am reminded of the faces of responsible individuals shut tight with lack of concern, or with apprehension that the conversation may open a gateway to a potentially dangerous territory that could affect them.

This is the first part in a series of essays by Hina Javed on her experience of reporting on FGC in Pakistan. Read the whole series here: Pakistan Journal.

(Hina Javed is an investigative journalist based in Pakistan, driven by the ambition of tackling difficult, often untouched topics. Her focus is on stories related to human rights, health and gender.)