Happy New Year from all of us at Sahiyo. We are very excited to be welcoming in 2022 with a new website! Please join us at our new home, sahiyo.org, and discover our website’s user-friendly features, beautiful cover art, and more.
Nesha Abiraj is an International Human Rights Lawyer. She is currently a contracted Senior Specialist in Advocacy and Policy, Humanitarian Affairs, with Save the Children International in Washington, DC. She also serves as an Advocacy Lead for UNICEF USA UNITE. Nesha has worked on global human rights policies related to the rights of women and children and global health and human rights. Notably, she worked on infectious diseases law and policy in India, China, and the United States. She has also done over a decade of humanitarian service in the aftermath of natural disasters and recently in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic in the Caribbean and the United States with local and international NGOs including the Red Cross.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I pursued my law degree with the University of London and did the Solicitor’s Bar with Staffordshire University, in the UK. I was admitted to practice as a Barrister in Trinidad and Tobago on June 18th, 2009. In 2016, following the media coverage of the chemical attacks in Syria, led me to a course on refugees and asylum seekers, created by Amnesty International, which changed my life. After successful completion of the course, I knew I had to go even further if I truly wanted to make a difference. This led me to taking a huge leap.
I had my own successful private legal practice, which I worked for 8 years to build and yet I was ready to give it all up to pursue what felt like a higher purpose for me. I applied and was accepted to Northwestern University where I successfully completed my Masters of Law in International Human Rights. I became the first person originally from Trinidad & Tobago to be accepted into that program. It also led to me becoming the first person from Trinidad & Tobago to be awarded the Schuette fellowship in Global Health and Human Rights, which I pursued and completed with the Women’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch.
My work during the fellowship also led to me becoming the first researcher at Human Rights Watch to be awarded the Citation of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for my tireless work to protect the children of the Commonwealth from early, forced, and child marriages.
When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?
I first became involved with Sahiyo in 2018. During my fellowship I was tasked with working to end early, forced and child marriage in the US State of Massachusetts. Part of that work involved understanding the linkages and driving forces behind child marriage, one of which included female genital cutting (FGC). To that end, I decided to reach out to an advocate in Massachusetts to determine whether this practice was linked in any way to early, forced and child marriages in the US.
In that meeting, I had no idea I was about to be introduced to someone who had been subjected to the practice as a child. In that moment, the gravity of FGC and the risk posed to millions of girls like her felt so much more real, and I knew I had to do something about it.
National outrage had also sparked following a Michigan court’s ruling, acquitting a doctor who had performed FGC on a child. If I had left that conversation and did nothing, knowing the risk millions of children, especially girls, face, and knowing that the law was not even on the side of survivors or those at risk, then I would be betraying my own sense of justice/morality.
I continued to educate myself about FGC and did as much as I could with the platform I had to amplify survivor voices and the growing call to ban the practice. I attended most if not all of Sahiyo’s webinars. I also enrolled and successfully completed a women’s health and human rights course, created by Stanford University which included FGC. In 2020 I went on to participate in the Voice’s project and was most recently appointed to the US Advisory Board.
How has your involvement impacted your life?
I gained a family of “sahiyos” or “sisters” relentlessly pursuing a far better world for children everywhere, through the elimination of this internationally recognized human rights abuse, which harms women and girls and can result in death. Anything I do with Sahiyo brings both meaning and fulfillment to my life and I am exceptionally grateful to be a part of this family.
What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?
Oftentimes, we think we need to do really big things which attract recognition to create an impact, but the biggest impact you will make in this life really comes from the things that are often not reported on or written about. I never asked for any of the things that were awarded to me nor did I ever ask to be the first of anything. Everything I have ever done in my life was honestly because I refused to be a bystander in the face of injustice and I cared enough to do something about it. In 2018, on a field research trip focused on infectious diseases law and policy in India, I had a focused group discussion with a group of women in India who were survivors of tuberculosis. While I can speak some Hindi and I do understand it, for these purposes a translator was needed.
These women shared the shame, the stigma and discrimination they experienced by their families on account of their diagnosis, ranging from being denied access to their children and being treated as outcasts in their own homes, to being sent back to their families by their in-laws, who in some cases did not want them. At the end of the discussion, even through the language barrier, I went to thank these women for their courage and willingness to share their experiences, and it turned into hugs all around the room. For the first time, these women shared how much that human touch of an embrace meant to them of not being feared, scorned, shamed or stigmatized. I understood then and there what a survivor-centered approach means.
The end result of that experience was that these women became leaders in their communities and were now supporting other women like them, so that they did not have to face the same adversities they did. It is moments like these, which makes all the other challenges that you will face, worth it. It does not matter whether it becomes a news headline or whether it leads to recognition, what matters are the survivors and those at risk and knowing in touching just one life in the pursuit of justice, it might have helped change an entire community for the better. It is these ripple effects which ultimately generate the big wave of change. Just as working with these survivors cast a light on the best parts of our shared humanity, working with Sahiyo can do the same for you.
This is part two of the ‘Scenarios by Sahiyo’ series, created by Kamakshi Arora and Beth Fotheringham. The story follows Zoeb, as he realizes that his sister, Zara, is a survivor of female genital cutting. This devastating realization conveys the complete removal of men and boys from the female-led practice, depicting the extent to which it is hidden in such communities. Through giving Zara an opportunity to voice her experience and listening with respect and understanding, Zoeb shows how communication is possible, as well as necessary, with their ensuing conversation providing an effective example of breaking down barriers between men and women.
Read Scenarios by Sahiyo Part 1 here.
By: Cate Cox
In the fall of my junior year at university, I decided to take a course called “Human Rights and Global Literature.” In this class, we explored diverse kinds of literature that called into question different conceptions of human rights, including works by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Tadeusz Borowski, Vaddey Ratner, Farnoosh Moshiri, and Eka Kurniawan. When the professor announced that our final project was to create a Zine that explored a human rights issue important to us, I immediately knew what I wanted to do.
According to the World Health Organization, female genital cutting (FGC) is a human rights violation and a severe form of violence against women and girls. After nearly two years of working with Sahiyo, I wanted my Zine to focus on FGC. A complex human rights issue that is often forgotten about in the United States, I hoped to create a Zine that would help raise awareness about FGC in America, and highlight the global prevalence of this form of gender-based violence.
I decided to title my Zine Who?, to reflect the many misconceptions that affect who we think FGC occurs to. I wanted to dismiss some of the misconceptions around FGC that assert it is only practiced in certain communities and in certain places. Given that my audience would mainly be my fellow classmates, I particularly wanted to focus on the prevalence of FGC in the United States. I included statistics such as the CDC estimate of women and girls affected by FGC in the U.S., and the many legislative delays in outlawing the practice.
The hardest part of creating this Zine was deciding on what images I wanted to draw to accompany my writing. While working at Sahiyo, I have become increasingly aware of the ways in which violent and graphic imagery about FGC can re-traumatize survivors and stigmatize communities. Before I began to draw, I sat down with the Sahiyo Media Guide on Reporting on FGC; this was extremely helpful for thinking through the kinds of images I could draw to represent the harm FGC causes in a way that was also ethical and respectful to survivors’ experiences.
After many edits and scrapped designs exploring the harms of FGC and who it occurs to, I still wasn’t quite satisfied. I explored the many consequences of FGC, and realized that I didn’t only want my Zine to highlight the harms of FGC. I wanted to provide my audience with ways to get involved in the world to end FGC and motivate people to become involved in the issue. I decided to end my Zine with a reminder that, while it may seem difficult, ending FGC is possible if we are all involved.
The process of creating this Zine was a very enlightening experience that allowed me to think through both ethical reporting on this issue, as well as how to motivate people to become involved in the crucial work to end female genital cutting.
On November 9th, Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher participated as a speaker in the World Bank-hosted Webinar “Intersectionality: Female Genital Mutilation and Racism.”
The webinar was an event of the GFLJD Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Legal Working Group. The panel of speakers was composed of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) experts and activists from around the world, who explored the ways in which inherent underlying racism is preventing the effective protection of every women and girls while leaving no-one behind; the ways in which FGM and racism’s consequences on health, education, wellbeing, social and economic development are similar and cumulative; the idea that special laws criminalizing FGM/C are tinted with discrimination when every country already has applicable general laws on bodily harm, injuries, mutilation, VAWG and femicide; and the idea that development actors’ general reluctance to address FGM/C directly can to some extent result from a span of underlying racial and gender biases.
In July of 2021, Sahiyo hosted a similar webinar: “Critical Intersections: Anti-Racism and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).” The event included thoughtful commentary from advocates and survivors of FGM/C on the overlap between racism, oppression, culture, and FGM/C. The speakers also shared the struggles theyhave faced while working to bring an end to this harmful practice globally. You can watch Sahiyo’s webinar here, and read the transcript of the webinar here.
On November 9th, Sahiyo team members volunteer Zahra Qaiyumi, Programs Intern Sarah Boudreau, and Programs Coordinator Cate Cox led a training for Massachusetts based Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs). SANEs are registered nurses who have completed additional training and education to provide comprehensive healthcare to those who have experienced sexual assault. As an extreme form of gender-based violence, knowledge about and awareness of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) is integral to the care that SANEs provide.
During the event, Sahiyo provided much needed education to over 200 participants in virtual attendance. Topics discussed included defining FGM/C and its clinical consequences, the legal context of FGM/C both locally and nationally, and an interactive discussion about best practices for providing healthcare to survivors utilizing the Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling project.
Participants were active in the discussion, recounting times when they encountered survivors of FGM/C in a clinical setting and how those interactions could have been improved. They also self-identified gaps in their own knowledge of the practice, including timing of deinfibulation in pregnancy and how to perform a pelvic exam on someone who has experienced infibulation.
Cultural humility-based training of healthcare workers who come in to direct contact with FGM/C survivors has the potential to improve the quality of life of survivors, improve access to appropriate healthcare and potentially prevent the practice in future generations. We also shared some of Sahiyo’s resources, including our Trauma Series Blogs and the Mumkin app.
As an organization, Sahiyo hopes to participate in more events like this and continue to evolve training content to fit the needs of survivors and the individuals providing them care.
On November 25th, the first day of 16 Days of Activism, Sahiyo will launch part one of their ‘Scenarios by Sahiyo’ project. Created and illustrated by Kamakshi Arora and written by Beth Fotheringham (both interns with Sahiyo), ‘Scenarios by Sahiyo’ will feature short comic strips based on real life stories by activists, advocates and allies working to end female genital cutting (FGC).
The project aims to portray particularly personal interactions, ones that are often the hardest to conduct, that end in a positive outcome, such as a breakthrough in communication or a change in perspective. It is designed to build on Sahiyo’s mission of empowering South Asian communities through storytelling, with the visual art style accompanying the stories as an effective aid.
The first comic follows the story of Rahat and Areefa, a daughter and mother who disagree about the practice of khatna (the word for FGC in the Bohra community), who must then talk about their respective trauma and guilt together to reach a place of understanding and forgiveness.
The second part of the ‘Scenarios by Sahiyo’ project is due to be posted on December 10th, the last day of 16 Days of Activism. The comic strip will depict the story of a brother and sister, Zoeb and Zara, and their experience discussing female genital cutting; this will highlight the necessity of breaking down barriers between men and women to communicate about such issues.
Read Scenarios by Sahiyo Part 1 here.
Sahiyo was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Donald Strong, a true male ally in the work to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), whose advocacy provided energy towards propelling the Stop FGM Act of 2020 into law. As Director of Research Coordination and a Practicum Director in the Department of Prevention and Community Health with George Washington University, Mr. Strong worked closely with nonprofit organizations, health departments, and healthcare providers serving the African immigrant community in the DMV, in the work to eliminate the practice of FGM/C.
Some of us at Sahiyo were lucky enough to work with him directly on this effort; co-founder Mariya Taher collaborated with Don on the GW Dean’s Seminar Series: Addressing Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) in the DMV. Sahiyo U.S. Advisory Board Member Maryum Saifee recognizes Don as someone who “really laid the groundwork for GW’s role in becoming a leader in the anti FGM/C advocacy efforts in the United States.”
Sahiyo would like to commemorate him through a spotlight with our Bhaiyo initiative (something Don was really excited about), which aims to create a space where male allies can come together to collaborate, spark dialogue, and spread information about this form of gender-based violence and it’s harmful impacts.
There is perhaps no one better to commemorate Don than those who knew him best. We’ve asked some of his colleagues, and those who were lucky enough to know him personally, to provide reflections on his legacy.
Don Strong, a connector, a cheerleader, a community activist, and confidant. When he walked into any meeting, within five minutes, he made sure everyone knew one another and how we were all connected. I remember we were giving a presentation at the UN about FGM/C, and the storytelling we were engaging in was getting emotionally heavy. Don, sensing the tension, stood up and started engaging with the room. The participants didn’t know one another when they entered the room, but Don was connecting people, connecting lives, and within minutes had the entire room, standing up and sharing their stories. By the end of the session Don had us all exchanging contact information and taking group photos. He was incredibly humble and wouldn’t let us tell people that it was his advocacy, his storytelling that put the Stop FGM ACT of 2020 into action. As one of our community partners stated “It was easy to see that Don was an advocate to his core. His motivation to end FGM/C, and to get men involved in the process, was inspiring and contagious. I know he will be dearly missed by GW, the field, and most of all his family.”
Don, my friend, I’m going to miss you. May you rest in peace and may your power be instilled in each of us to continue your mission.
-Karen A. McDonnell
Don was a colleague, a friend, and an advocate against FGM/C. He worked quietly in support of organizations in the nonprofit community.
Don was partly responsible for the relationship GWPF has with George Washington University today. He had called my office in search of information on FGM/C, and we ended up chatting for a while. At the end of our conversation, he invited me to meet with Dr. Karen McDonnell, Dr. Ghada Khan, and him. On a bitterly cold February morning in 2017, I met with Don, Karen, and Ghada for the first time. That meeting was the birth of the current relationship GWPF has with George Washington University.
I admired the passion Don possessed for this work. He was passionate about young men becoming involved in the work against FGM/C. He will always be remembered, and most definitely missed. May his soul find rest and peace.
I met Don a few years ago, and since that day he has inspired me everyday with his immense passion and dedication to ending FGM/C. His ability to foster connections was simply unparalleled. His energy and charisma would light up every room he walked into and liven every conversation he had. Anyone who met him could immediately tell that he was such a radiant and incredible human being. He always cheered me on and I will be forever thankful for his friendship and mentorship through the years. Along with our GW community, and his friends and family, I will miss him so much. But, his legacy will live on. Rest in power, Don.
I first met Don in 2015 when he and his colleague, Karen McDonnell, were thinking through the process of building a strategy to counter Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the US. I remember sharing both my personal story as a survivor, but also my experiences as a policymaker trying to move the needle on addressing the issue globally. I told him how important it was that we focus on FGM — filling the data and research gaps domestically— to have the credibility and moral authority to advocate for the same calls to action with counterparts overseas.
I was struck by Don’s kindness during the meeting and over the many years, the strength of his conviction to keep pushing and elevating an issue that is frankly still taboo and squeamish for many to absorb. That took courage and his bravery has made a difference in the lives of so many of us, both in the present moment and future generations, carrying his legacy forward. I am forever grateful to have been blessed with the opportunity to partner and learn from such a powerful advocate for human rights and gender equity.
After an ALIGN literature review revealed a lack of research on how broadcast media contributes positively to gender norm change, Faria A. Nasruddin has developed a series of case studies for the ALIGN platform that draw on the experiences from individuals and organisations in three key sectors: (1) education-entertainment, (2) commercial media, and (3) news media and journalism. Participating organisations include: Population Media Center, BBC Media Action, the Geena Davis Institute, the Representation Project, Sahiyo, Sancharika Samuha, and the Global Media Monitoring Project. These case studies, although varied, all revolve around the question: How can organisations mobilize broadcast media to effect positive gender norm change? What are the most effective strategies, and what are their results?
To launch the case studies, ALIGN hosted a webinar with media practitioners, journalists, and researchers from South Asia to dialogue about the state of the South Asian media industry in terms of gender representation and how to tap into the transformative potential of broadcast media. Topics discussed varied from the effect of the #MeToo movement on the media industry to how to make education-entertainment engaging and effective. The diverse panel of speakers both highlighted the progress of those leading the way in changing the broadcast media industry and prompted key questions that the case studies address in greater depth.
On October 22nd, the Biden-Harris Administration issued the first-ever national gender strategy to advance the full participation of all people – including women and girls – in the United States and around the world. The National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality incorporates female genital cutting (FGC) as a form of gender-based violence needing attention, clearly labeling it a “human rights abuse” and planning several courses of action to work towards ending it.
The Strategy recognizes that millions of women and girls are at risk of FGC, and that these human rights abuses occur domestically and abroad, which poses a global security issue. he Administration plans to “collaborate with state officials to prevent and address harmful practices that undermine human rights,” and “work with a broad array of leaders to promote programs that address harmful practices that undermine human rights.” Sahiyo commends the Biden-Harris Administration’s important acknowledgement of this harmful practice, and looks forward to seeing how the strategy will be implemented through collaboration with domestic and international leaders to create change.