Who? A Zine About The Global Impact of FGC

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. 

Read Who? Female Genital Cutting (FGC) around the world.

The World Bank hosts webinar on the  Intersectionality between Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting and Racism

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.

Sahiyo leads training for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners

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.

Introducing: Scenarios by Sahiyo

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.

Bhaiyo Spotlight: Honoring Donald Strong

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.

-Angela Peabody

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.

-Krishna Patel

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.

-Maryum Saifee

Sahiyo featured in Align case study and webinar

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.

Legislative update: The Biden Administration’s National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality

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.

Sahiyo participates in Massachusetts Healthy Youth Consortium

On November 1st Sahiyo partnered with The Massachusetts Healthy Youth Consortium (MAHYC) to hold a training for K-12 teachers about the importance of using education as a means of preventing female genital cutting (FGC) and how they can become advocates against this practice. The goal of MAHYC is for educators, health professionals, policymakers, and other advocates to work collaboratively towards helping to pass The Healthy Youth Act which would ensure that comprehensive curricula are taught in public schools that choose to offer sex education. Massachusetts ranks 12th in the nation for at-risk populations, with nearly 15,000 girls at risk, with the largest at-risk areas being Boston, Newton, and Cambridge. FGC is often rooted in secrecy and isolation, and girls at risk are often taught never to speak of what they experienced. Sahiyo believes that education can be a powerful tool to break this silence and bring some clarity to the myths surrounding female genital cutting.

Sahiyo’s statement on the Michigan case dismissal on Sep 28, 2021

It is with great sadness and disappointment that Sahiyo responds to the recent judgement in the Michigan case. Female genital cutting (FGC) is recognized internationally, and specifically by the U.S. Government as a violation of human rights. Judge Friedman’s decision to throw out this case, which is the nation’s first FGC case, highlights a failure to protect girls in the United States from this harmful practice, and a failure to truly understand the extent and pervasiveness of FGC within this country. (See the Amicus Brief, which is informed by survivors of the same community as the girls in this case, and provides details on these aspects of FGC for the judge). 

This judgment has been met by much criticism already, with a call from The US End FGM/C Network for more training across all branches of government, including judicial training that includes: what FGM/C is, how it is carried out, and its life-long impact on women and girls. 

Sahiyo believes we cannot allow harmful practices such as FGC to continue. Girls’ rights cannot go unprotected due to legal technicalities and decisions made by those who do not, or refuse to, understand the realities of gender-based violence. 

We must all work together to protect ALL girls from this harm and we call on the Department of Justice to appeal this decision. 

Background on the case

On April 13, 2017, Detroit emergency room doctor Jumana Nargarwala was arrested and charged with performing FGC on minor girls in the United States. This was the first time someone was brought up on charges under 18 U.S.C. 116, which criminalizes FGC. According to the U.S. Federal complaint, Dr. Nagarwala performed FGC on 6 to 8 year old girls out of a medical office in Livonia, Michigan. Some of these girls’ families reportedly traveled inter-state to have the doctor perform FGC. 

On November 20, 2018, Judge Bernard Friedman ruled that the US Federal Law banning Female Genital Cutting was unconstitutional based on a technicality. With this ruling, the judge dismissed key charges of FGC against two Michigan doctors and six other people accused of practicing genital cutting on several minor girls. 

The ruling was determined by Judge Friedman’s stance that the crime of FGC should be regulated by individual states. However, the US does not actually have laws against FGC in every single state. At the time, only 27 out of 50 states had a state law banning FGC. As of October 2021, there are now 40 states with a state law. There is a state law in Michigan banning FGC, but the law only came into effect in 2017 after the federal case involving Dr. Nagarwala and Dr. Attar came to light. The doctors cannot be prosecuted retrospectively under this Michigan state law. 

After Judge Friedman’s verdict in 2018, the Department of Justice failed to appeal Judge Friedman’s decisions in 2019. As a result, Congress filed a motion to appeal the decision, but the motion was denied. In 2020, these events led Congress to unanimously amend and strengthen the Federal FGC law, in order to withstand future challenges, while firmly stating its disagreement with Judge Freidman’s interpretation of the law. In January of 2021, Congress passed the  H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act. (To learn more about the history of this court case and legislation in the U.S., read CoP Law & FGM – Legislation in North America.)

However, the combination of Judge Friedman’s recent decision in September 2021 dismissing the remaining charges against Doctor Nargarwala (and calling the prosecution ‘vindictive’ for seeking new charges), with the Department of Justice’s original decision in 2019 to not appeal his decision, underscores how protecting girls from violence was not central to the case.  

Struggle, belonging, and community: Sahiyo and StoryCenter hosted a Voices to End FGM/C screening

By Sandra Yu

On August 19th, 2021, Sahiyo and StoryCenter co-hosted a film screening and panel discussion to highlight voices from the Voices to End FGM/C Digital Storytelling workshop. The event showcased eleven new digital stories, created virtually by a global group of advocates and survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), during January and February. 

Mariya Taher of Sahiyo and Amy Hill of StoryCenter, two facilitators of the annual workshop, led an audience Q&A and presented storytelling methodology, while two guest speakers, Nafisa (pseudonym) and Lola Ibrahim (Yoruba, English), shared their experiences with the digital storytelling workshop itself. Of the eleven stories shown, three were premiered at the event and had not been released to the public yet. The full collection can be found here, with stories continuing to be released. 

“I feel liberated,” Nafisa said. “I feel lighter, and I feel scared all at once. I wanted to talk about this work and khatna and the challenges that are faced in the community for many years.”

The 2021 Voices digital collection succeeded tremendously in capturing the core concept of oppressive social norms. Almost reminiscent of short vignettes, each digital story actualized the abstract concept of social norms into concrete experiences. The stories stood individually as personal narratives of struggle, belonging, and community. Comparatively, this collection presented the larger struggles of individuals and collectives in battling gender-based violence. 

In response, audience members engaged deeply with each story, typing out messages with empathy and gratitude to each storyteller for taking up the challenge of telling their stories. It was uplifting to see how the digital stories could elicit such reactions of allyship and community-building, even within a Zoom chat. 

My personal highlight from the event was hearing Nafisa and Lola reflect on their experiences of storytelling and tackle the nuances of FGM/C in their respective communities. The digital storytelling workshop was evidently transformative, in similar and different ways for each participant. 

“Sharing my shame can make a difference,” Lola said. “You understand that. Because you own that story. And you’re able to tell the story. So you’re no longer ashamed.”

Lola’s transformation of shame to acceptance of her story is stunning to hear. Through the workshop, she found a close-knit community to listen and empathize with her story. By producing a digital story, she now engages a global community to respond to her story. 

“I felt powerless because in the world that we live in, when you’re anonymous, you feel like your voice is taken away,” said Nafisa. “You don’t have an identity, but I think sharing my story has allowed me to have a voice or has created a space for me. It has put the power back in my hands.”

Nafisa’s story is equally hopeful. Despite her anonymity, Nafisa proudly holds ownership of her story and continues to advocate against FGM/C. 

Sahiyo is excited to announce the upcoming 2022 Voices to End FGM/C digital storytelling workshop, as part of their continued partnership with StoryCenter. This workshop is open to all individuals who have a story to share about how they, or someone they know, have been impacted by FGC, and will be held virtually.

For those interested in taking part, please fill out the application by Friday, December 11, 2021.

Read more about the 2022 workshop and/or donate to support the Voices project