Women should not be harmed because of societal norms 

By Sakshi Rajani 

Age: 17

Country: India

Female genital cutting (FGC): the term sounded ruthless the first time I heard it. It was not long ago that I was introduced to this term. While going through my Instagram feed, I read a story about a law student who was spreading awareness about FGC, and I was clueless about what it was. Immediately I searched this issue online and learned how serious it was. Then, I pondered why I hadn’t known about it earlier. Why had no one around me talked about it? 

Upon researching it further, I came to know how deeply rooted this problem was in communities and cultures. My will to do something to end it became stronger. I looked for organisations working to end FGC and came across Sahiyo. I soon joined the organisation. 

The first time I spoke about FGC to my friends they said, “What is that?” I wasn’t surprised by their reaction because I, too, was unfamiliar with it. I asked them to research it on their own, and then I explained more about the harms. I told them the World Health Organization and the United Nations declared FGC a human rights violation. Then I introduced them to the groundbreaking Mumkin app created by two co-founders of Sahiyo, Priya Goswami and Aarefa Johari, where my friends could learn more valuable information about this issue.

What are the hurdles in encouraging abandonment of or ending FGC? FGC is also often seen as a necessary ritual for initiation into womanhood and can be linked to cultural ideals of femininity, purity and modesty. A strong incentive to continue the practice is family pressure to adhere to conventional social norms. Women who break from this social norm can face condemnation, abuse and rejection from family or community members. Patriarchal society can help perpetuate it generation after generation. 

Female genital cutting should stop immediately, as a woman should have full rights over her body and no woman should be harmed because of societal norms and expectations. I am now an advocate to make sure FGC ends.

Saved by a lie: A story of female genital cutting

By Zainab Khambata

Age: 17

Place of residence: Mumbai, India

My maternal grandmother prides herself on being the perfect blend of modernity and religion. But when it came to her own daughter who is my mother, in spite of her misgivings, she still fell in line and got my mother circumcised or cut. Ask my grandmother why she did it and the reasons are numerous. Her mother asked her to do it. She lived in a joint family and all the cousins were cut. She didn’t know how to openly defy social norms and say no. The oddly mystifying voice of reason: if everybody is doing it, maybe it is the right thing to do. That is how Bohri women still continue to be cut in this day and age by their mothers and aunts and grandmothers. 

My mother still remembers the day she was cut as a child very vividly. She wasn’t told anything at all, simply pounced upon by her aunts and a “maasi,” or auntie, who used a razor on her. Then she was asked to rest to let the bleeding stop, given a bar of chocolate, and as a bonus, no school the next day. Life went on for my mother as usual without any mention of the incident or what had transpired. 

All was good and forgotten until my paternal grandmother started hounding my mom to get me cut. It was this whole maahol, or social environment, where mothers of girls my age were more than happy to play reminder and ask if I was cut yet because they had already had their little girls cut. My mom read about it and realised the physical repercussions of it, the bleeding and scarring, emotional repercussions and trauma, and in some cases, even sexual frigidity. You may never really forget what happens to you even though you are not informed about it at all. Upon inquiry, my mom never got a satisfactory answer as to why girls are cut besides the fact that it’s Sunnat, or encouraged. Some moms said it was for hygiene purposes; others said it would keep a girls’ potentially “sinful” thoughts of a sexual nature at bay. But the final straw was when she was told it may heighten mental and physical intimacy between couples. She realised then that many people have a myriad of confusing reasons to justify cutting.

When the pressure became too much from my grandmother and the other moms around her, my mother resorted to the only way she knew to keep me safe, by telling everyone that the deed was already done.

My paternal grandmother, who was hell bent on getting me circumcised like all my cousins to uphold her own religious morals and beliefs, made it a point to cross-check with my maternal grandmother whether I was truly cut. My maternal grandmother was smart enough to say yes, mostly to atone to my mom and not let history repeat itself for the sake of my bodily autonomy. In this way, my paternal grandmother was satisfied and she let it rest once and for all.

My mom had actually managed to prevent my cutting by telling everyone I had undergone the practice. Ingenious or devious? No matter what, I am grateful.

Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C: Event Reflection

By Cate Cox

Sahiyo was honored to join StoryCenter to host the webinar, “Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C,” during a parallel event for the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women on March 16th. 

Sahiyo and StoryCenter staff had the opportunity to introduce the collaborative Voices to End FGM/C project, which centers on storytelling by survivors and those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) as a tool to challenge social norms that perpetuate the practice. 

From outlining the storytelling process to hearing from the participants themselves, the parallel event offered an in-depth exploration of the power that storytelling has to heal and create change on a global scale. 

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and the U.S. Executive Director began by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s work and the Voices project. Next, the co-founder of StoryCenter’s Silence Speaks program, Amy Hill, explored the methodology behind the Voices project, and why storytelling in general can have such a big impact on individuals, communities, and policy. 

Former Voices participants Aarefa Johari, Severina Lemachokoti, Sunshine Bayor, Zehra Patwa, and Maryum Saifee shared their experiences with the project. Both organizations introduced three new storytellers: Absa Samba, Hunter Kessous, and Somaya Abdelrahman. After watching their amazing Voices videos which will be released in May, each participant had the chance to answer a few questions about their experiences and their plans for moving forward. Panelists emphasized the importance of survivor-centered advocacy, mental health, and trauma services for survivors, as well as encouraged the audience to become involved in advocacy.    

A Chorus of Voices by Aarefa Johari

Panelists also answered select audience questions about their work and experiences of creating their videos. Intimate and brave, the panelists opened up about their fears of backlash and the ways that their videos still impact them. Both organzations shared resources with the audience to further educate themselves about the work Sahiyo and Storycenter are doing and to learn more about the Voices to End FGM/C project. 

“Using Storytelling to Shift Social Norms and Prevent FGM/C” was an ode to the power storytelling has to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It also highlighted the amazing work everyone at Sahiyo and StoryCenter are doing in their own capacity to advocate for women’s rights and shined a light on the often-overlooked work being done by grassroots organizations across the world. 

Watch the recording of this event.

To learn more about Sahiyo’s work, Sahiyo staff will be hosting a webinar in partnership with The US End FGM/C Network and the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence on April 15th, at 2:30 pm EST over Zoom. Learn more about how to register.

Your questions answered: Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting

Last fall Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth to host Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of female genital cutting (FGC), how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors may be working toward healing. Our guests had a lot of questions for our speakers, some of which we were not able to answer during the webinar. Nevertheless, we felt these questions and their answers were important to share. 

Below you will find the answers licensed psychotherapist Joanna Vergoth graciously answered for our guests. If your question is not addressed below, you may find it answered later in the recorded portions provided by Sarian Karim-Kamara on the Sahiyo YouTube page or on the Dear Maasi page. 

Joanna Vergoth’s responses to participants’ questions:    

  1. Do you have any strategies for breaking the taboo around FGM/C and how community-based organizations can work directly with community members to end the practice in the U.S.?  

Silence regarding FGM/C perpetuates the practice so it is important to find a way to broach the subject sensitively in order to encourage conversation. And, when working with community members, it is advisable to identify and recruit folks who support the abandonment of this practice in order to create dialogues that can help persuade proponents of the practice to reconsider their position. Also, sponsoring a community event that focuses on women’s health and well-being can provide an opening for discussion. In addition, showing a film about FGM/C, such as “Desert Flower,” or “The Cruel Cut,” can also open hearts and minds.

  1. Is part of the healing process ever confronting the person who betrayed you?

Betrayal trauma occurs when the people a person depends on for survival significantly violate that person’s trust or well-being. It is understandable, then, that being cut by a trusted family member can have lifelong consequences with powerful emotions that can be difficult to process. 

Confronting the person who betrayed you can provide psychologically healing relief if your feelings are acknowledged and respected and if the ensuing conversation supports an honest discussion. However, every situation is unique and not everyone will feel the need or desire for confrontation. One can heal without confrontation. It all depends on the individual survivor and her particular circumstances. 

  1. I hope you can answer this question, please. Is it normal to not feel any impact by FGM? I am Iraqi and had FGM when I was around 7. I have no memories of this. I don’t have problems climaxing, and I am worried I may be blocking all of this out but I have no recollection of this at all.

Although post-traumatic stress symptoms can remain in remission for years, I don’t think you should think you have a problem because you can’t remember undergoing FGM. There are many women who do not remember their FGM/C [experience]. And, FGM/C is not necessarily an impediment to sexual function. In fact, many women report that they have no difficulties experiencing orgasm.  

  1. How do you offer community support to white women who have survived FGC from surviving cults, since their experience is different from women of color who may have community/cultural support?

Unfortunately, I do not know of any community support for Caucasian FGC survivors who have also survived cults. Here is the first link and the second link of resources for cult survivors. Hopefully, these women may be able to find support and other FGC affected survivors

  1. Any experience with sexuality after clitoral restoration?

The procedure, often called clitoral reconstruction or restoration, is viewed with caution by some medical experts. The World Health Organization says that while there are some promising reports that the operation may relieve pain, there is not yet enough evidence of safety and effectiveness. The organization advises against raising unrealistic expectations, especially for women seeking sexual improvement. However, that being said, a recent systematic review evaluated the effects of reconstructive surgery. The results indicate that about three women out of four regain a visible clitoris. Self-reported improvements in pain during sex, clitoral function/pleasure, orgasm, and desire are in the 43– 63% range; but up to 22% reported a worsening in sexual outcomes.  It is important to remember that female sexuality is a complex integration of biological, physiological, psychological, sociocultural, and interpersonal factors that contribute to a combined experience of physical, emotional, and relational satisfaction.  And within this combination of factors, every woman is uniquely different.

Hear about one FGM/C survivor’s successful experience of her clitoral restoration surgery.

Art, Activism, And Healing: Reflecting on our conversation around female genital cutting

By Cate Cox

On January 19th, Sahiyo held the webinar, Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC). During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from four speakers Owanto, Naomi Wachs, Sunera Sadicali, and Andrea Carr about how they have used art as a tool to encourage the abandonment of FGC and to work toward healing. From sculptures to videos and sound bites, this webinar explored how art in all its many forms can be used to uplift the voices of survivors and continue to push the conversation around FGC.     

Mariya Taher, a co-founder of Sahiyo and U.S. Executive Director, began our webinar by giving the audience an introduction to Sahiyo’s many programs that involve art and activism, including Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C and #MoreThanASurvivor campaigns. Next, our speakers Owanto and Andrea Carr introduced us to their work as career artists, and how they are championing this cause in some of the most prestigious galleries and institutions around the world, as well as in community settings. They reminded us that art can be a tool to spark hard discussions and give people the space to have their own stories seen and heard. Sunera Sadicali and Naomi Wachs helped to expand on that conversation by taking us through their own journeys and explaining the psychological reasons behind why art is such an effective tool for trauma healing. The insight and experience of our panelists not only helped our audience to understand what has been done in the field of art and activism surrounding FGC, but stood as an inspiration for how we all can engage in art and activism in our own personal lives. 

At the end of our webinar, our audience had the opportunity to ask our panelists questions about their experience and knowledge. The questions explored how our panelists were able to get people to open up about their experiences with FGC and how they were able to use art to encourage education and conversation around this issue. Coming from their multi-disciplinary backgrounds, each of our panelists were able to speak to a unique aspect of these questions. Despite their diversity of experience, they each emphasized the importance of art as a conversational medium, that allows people to take control of their own narrative, and when a safe space is created, encourages healing. 

Art, Activism, And Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting (FGC) explored the often underutilized tool that is art to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing. It reminded us that activism and healing take many forms, and that, as Owanto said, “There is light.” For those who are interested in learning more about art and activism, Sahiyo is hosting a screening of our Voices to End FGM/C videos coming up this February. You can register here to attend!  

If you were unable to attend this webinar, or would simply like to learn more about this event, the transcript and recording of this event are attached below.

Watch the recording of this event.  

Read the transcript.

Why one Bohra woman shared her experience with female genital cutting publicly

By Jenny Cordle

On February 5th of last year, one day before the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), Zahra Khozema, 24, shared her deeply personal story of having been cut as a member of the Dawoodi Bohra sect in Pakistan.

“Being part of the Bohra community is feeling like a part of something,” Khozema said. “Though we are scattered around the world, we’re tightly knit. You can find a Bohra person in a crowd because of the colorful ridas women wear. And I promise you even if you don’t know them, they will approach you. I could be stranded in any city, and if I saw a Bohra person (from their clothing) I would sigh in relief because I know they’d let me in their home, or help me in any way they could. We’re a big family and we refer to everyone as brother and sister.”

Despite being considered a progressive community, many members of the Dawoodi Bohra sect of Shia Islam still prioritize female genital cutting, or khatna, for girls as young as 7 years old. The Dawoodi Bohra population comprises up to one million people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Yemen, Kenya, Egypt, Tanzania and South Africa. Diaspora communities also live in Europe, Australia and the United States. 

“I hate that even though our community does so much good work, it’s small and not mainstream, and we’re only going to be remembered for this practice by people who don’t know Bohras in real life,” she said. 

Khozema, who currently resides in London, said this in reference to the 2018 U.S. case of a Michigan doctor, Jumana Nagarwala, who was initially charged with performing FGM/C on at least nine girls with the alleged help of Dr. Fakhruddin Attar, his wife, Farida Attar, and five other residents of Michigan and Minnesota. Judge Bernard Friedman dropped the FGM/C charges, declaring the 1996 federal ban on FGM/C as unconstitutional, in what pro-khatna people may have considered a victory. But on January 5th of this year, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law criminalizing FGC in the U.S., stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice.

It was in reading about the 2018 case that Khozema realized that what happened to her was a source of buried trauma. 

“I will never stand by the practice, but I’m glad the case was an awakening for many Bohras like me to really think about the way we treat girls and women and why — because so many men didn’t even know about it,” she said. “A couple of my Bohra guy friends told me they stopped coming to the mosque after they read this story because they only found out about it then. These are men in their mid-twenties. That alone says a lot.”

Because of the secrecy surrounding the practice, Khozema was hesitant to share her experience with anyone. Her younger sister discouraged her from writing it altogether. But Khozema felt an urge to share it, despite potential repercussions. Many outspoken FGM/C activists face significant backlash within the Bohra community. This backlash can entail being ostracized, shamed, or having internet trolls harass those that speak out, claiming that speaking out is a “defamation of the faith, its leader and those who practice” khatna. Her piece was one of the top 50 stories of the year for Broadview Magazine in 2020. As she suspected, many women sought her out to share their stories of having been cut. 

“I wasn’t that surprised because 90% of the women I know have been through it,” Khozema said. “I was surprised that they just responded to my story positively. Non-Bohra friends assured me that this happens a lot in their own countries like India and Egypt.”

“A lot of people called me brave and strong for putting such a personal topic out there, but I honestly didn’t think it was,” she said. “I felt quite small and vulnerable, and even petty for not sharing it with the people who needed to see it the most — Bohra people my parents’ age.”

Khozema does not encourage women to share their stories if they are not ready. Instead, she encourages women and men to open up dialogue about khatna within their communities.

“I would encourage Bohra men and women to talk to their parents, and most importantly, new moms of girls,” she explained. “Ask them if khatna is something they’re considering and really ask why. ‘Do you really know why you’d do it to your daughter or are you just following blind tradition? Are you really willing to take your child to someone with scissors in a dark basement?’”

She said writing and sharing the piece did help her to heal in a sense.

“I spoke to so many people who assured me it was okay to write this,” Khozema said. “I also learned to face that some people will always be okay with it, and to know when to stop fighting with people who have made up their minds.”

After having written and shared the piece publicly, Khozema is in a better place and feels “lighter.” But psychologically and physically, the harm remains. “Intimacy, unfortunately, will always be difficult for me,” she said. “The shame I feel about not fully having control of my body will always be there.”

The United States has a law banning female genital cutting. What now?

By Hunter Kessous

On January 5th, the H.R. 6100-STOP FGM Act was signed into law, upon being passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate unanimously. The federal law criminalizes female genital cutting (FGC), a form of gender-based violence against young girls, which involves medically unnecessary partial or total removal of the external genitalia. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 500,000 girls and women have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGC in the United States alone. Globally, that number rises up to 3 million girls at risk per year, with a total of over 200 million girls and women having been cut. The STOP FGM Act strengthens the opposition to FGC by stating that religious or cultural beliefs may not be used in defense of the practice. Additionally, government agencies, such as the Departments of Education and Justice, will be required to report to Congress on the estimated number of women and girls who have undergone or are at risk of FGC in the U.S., and on efforts to prevent the practice. They will also give a report on the actions they take toward educating the community and preventing FGC from continuing. 

Advocates and policymakers have been working toward this goal for so long that it was concerning when the new law didn’t garner a lot of media attention. This could be because the U.S. has technically had a law against FGC since 1996—emphasis on technically, because for the past two years, the Department of Justice has refused to enforce the law. The only intact portion of the law has been a ban on taking a minor out of the U.S. to be cut, a practice known as vacation cutting. In 2018, a Michigan doctor was taken to court for the mutilation of over 100 girls. The judge dismissed the charges and ruled that Congress did not have the authority to pass the FGC law by associating it with the Commerce Clause, claiming that there is nothing “commercial or economic” about FGC. The STOP FGM law clarifies that FGC is, in fact, linked to inter-state or foreign commerce, thereby confirming Congress’ power to make FGC illegal. Since that pivotal case over two years ago, young girls are now protected against FGC under federal law. 

Although there is reason to celebrate, activists aren’t putting their feet up anytime soon. As far as policy goes, there is still more work to do. Despite the federal law, state laws against FGC are a necessary tool. Federal and state laws each protect girls in different ways. The federal law against FGC will be put to use if the crime involves interstate activity, such as transporting a girl to another state to be cut. We need state laws against FGC to protect girls in cases of local criminal activity, as was recommended by the judge in the aforementioned Michigan court case. To date, there are still 11 states which do not have any laws against FGC. In the states that do have anti-FGC policies, action must be taken to make these laws more comprehensive. Several states do not clarify that cultural/ritual reasons and alleged consent may not be used as a defense for performing FGC on a minor. Few states have legislation which includes a provision for community education and outreach, which is a key component of prevention. 

In addition to improving state laws, even more can be done at the federal level. Policy from the Department of Education and Health and Human Services requiring FGC education in schools can go a long way toward prevention. 

“While we celebrate the signing of H.R. 6100 and the recent Massachusetts law, we must continue to advocate for not only the criminalization of FGM/C, but a Federal Education Law,” said Angela Peabody, founder of the Global Woman P.E.A.C.E Foundation and political lobbyist. “It is imperative for every child in the United States to be knowledgeable about the practice of FGM/C. Even though several states have included an education clause in their laws, a federal law would cover all states. The schools already teach Family Life Education; therefore including the study of FGM/C in the FLE curriculum is not a difficult task. Virginia is already in the process of doing that.” 

Virginia has incorporated education about FGC into their school curriculum for middle and high schoolers in which they learn “the dangers of FGC, the criminal penalties, and the rights of the victim.” Education such as this serves to increase awareness, put an end to the thinking that FGC is not an American issue, and give a voice to the next generation of activists. 

The current law criminalizes FGC, and calls on several government agencies to enact programs that will protect girls and create public awareness. The law left the guidelines for these agencies vague, which leaves room for experts and advocates to guide these departments. There are many ways, for example, that policy can support girls and women living in the U.S. who have already undergone FGC, or those who will be cut in spite of the new law. Survivors face a range of physical and psychological complications. These include, but are not limited to, infection, fistulas, birth complication, sexual dysfunction, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Policy could go a long way to alleviate these burdens. For example, survivors of domestic violence are permitted to enroll in an ACA healthcare plan at any point during the year, rather than just during the open enrollment window. A policy such as this being applied to FGC survivors and their dependents would be a great step toward increasing access to healthcare. Yet, many of the less expensive healthcare plans do not provide counseling services, and this may not be apparent until after the plan has been purchased. Therefore, another area where legislation could protect FGC survivors is by creating federally funded programs to provide needed health care services, which may be lacking from their current healthcare plan, at subsidized rates or at no cost. There was an effort to pass a law which would include protections for survivors of FGC in the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2019. The bill passed through the House, but sadly reached an impasse in the Senate. 

These recommendations are just a few of the ways policy can protect girls and women from the harmful effects of FGC. The STOP FGM law is an excellent step toward ending gender- based violence in the U.S. But there is much more that we, as a country, can advocate for regarding increased prevention against FGC and improved support for survivors. This work is not entirely in the hands of legislators and government agencies. Most of our public servants are not experts on FGC. It is up to activists to guide the next steps that our local and federal agencies take toward ending FGC and supporting survivors.

One way that folks can get involved in this movement is by reaching out to the U.S. End FGM/C Network, an interagency group of grassroots organizations, survivors, healthcare providers and policymakers. Additionally, it is up to all of us to hold agencies accountable. We must encourage our officials to take FGC action seriously, to put it on their meeting agendas, and to allocate funds in their budget towards ending FGC and supporting survivors.

Dear Maasi: a sex and relationship column for survivors of female genital cutting

Dear Maasi is a column highlighting everything you want to know about sex and relationships, but were afraid to ask! It’s a partnership between Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut. It’s for all of us who have questions about female genital cutting (FGC) or khatna, and how it impacts our bodies, minds, sexuality and relationships.  We welcome you to submit your anonymous questions.

Dear Maasi,

In an October 22nd webinar about sex and mental health after khatna, you talked about different kinds of psychotherapy that are helpful for survivors. I think I might want to see a psychotherapist to talk about khatna (FGC), but I don’t know where to start.

—Anonymous

Dear Anonymous,

There are many paths to healing, and psychotherapy is one of them. I’m a big believer in its efficacy, and not just because I am a psychotherapist—I found psychotherapy very helpful in working through my own khatna-related emotional and sexual trauma.

None of my psychotherapists had heard about khatna, or had been trained in counseling survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) before working with me. Only two had a basic knowledge of FGM/C from their own reading, and this was about Types III or IV. I expected that; it’s only since 2015 that there’s been any widely held public discourse around khatna. While more therapists are getting better trained, it’s fairly rare to find an experienced FGM/C trauma therapist. Therefore, it was up to me to take some initiative in my own therapeutic journey. 

Here are some tips:

  • Seek out a psychotherapist who has at least five years of experience working with survivors of sexual trauma. 
  • Of these, look for someone who has training in a model or approach that goes beyond standard “talk therapy,” which tends to focus on cognitive understandings. Because trauma gets housed in the body, it’s important to directly address the unconscious and the body. A few examples of approaches that can be helpful to trauma survivors are (but not limited to): Internal Family Systems, Somatic Experiencing, Mindfulness, and EMDR.
  • Interview a few therapists. (Most will offer a free half-hour consultation for this purpose). Besides asking about their knowledge, experience and approaches, tune into your gut regarding “match” or how connected you feel with the person. Your relationship with a psychotherapist is an important part of the process.
  • Gather information about khatna for context around the practice. Send some links so the therapist can do their own reading and learning. It’s good for them to process the information and their own reactions before working with you so that you can feel free to open up. 

Here’s a piece I wrote to share with people: Seven Things Not to Ask a Khatna Survivor.

Here are two deeper dive khatna resources:

Resolving the trauma of khatna can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives. Anonymous, I wish you well in your healing journey!

Maasi 

Art, Activism, and Healing webinar: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting

By Cate Cox

Across the world, millions of women and girls are at risk of female genital cutting (FGC). FGC can have severe physical and psychological impacts that last a lifetime. As the painful effects of FGC are brought to light more and more, activists and therapists alike are looking for more ways to support survivors and protect future girls from this practice. Art is an underutilized tool to create awareness about this issue and support survivors’ healing.

As an organization whose mission is to use storytelling to empower communities to abandon FGC and support survivors’ healing, Sahiyo is one of the key advocates for utilizing art as a means of supporting these effectors. From the Voices To End FGM/C campaign, the #MoreThanASurvivor collages, and the Faces for Change project, art and activism have long been part of Sahiyo programming. 

On January 19th, 10 a.m. EST, Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around Female Genital Cutting. During this inspiring event, you’ll hear from four expert panelists, Owanto, Andrea Carr, Sunera Sadicali, and Naomi Wachs, as they discuss art and its role in supporting survivors’ healing, how activists and survivors alike can use art to make a change in their communities, and working toward prevention efforts to end female genital cutting. 

Following the vein of one of our previous webinars, Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing, the speakers will first introduce their work and their personal journeys related to this subject and then we will have a question and answer session led by Sahiyo co-founder Mariya Taher. 

To hear more about how art can help you as a survivor and/or an activist, please register for the event. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Register Today: https://bit.ly/ArtActivismAndHealing 

Owanto is a multi-cultural Gabonese artist born in Paris, France. She was raised in Libreville, Gabon, and later moved to Europe to study philosophy, literature, and languages at the Institut Catholic de Paris in Madrid, Spain. Her multidisciplinary practice emerges from a 30-year career where she explores a variety of media, including photography, sculpture, painting, video, sound, installation, and performative works. Her practice enables her to engage with consciousness through the notion of memory, both personal and collective.

Andrea Carr has worked across a broad spectrum of the performing arts, bringing vitality to global ecological and social themes. Embracing change along the way, her work often distills into designs that move between art installations and immersive environments. Her work has been included in the U.K. representation of the World Stage Design Exhibition, in the Aesthetica Art Prize anthology, and in the ‘Designers Lead’ section of the Society of British Theatre Designers (SBTD) 2019 exhibition at the V&A. Andrea is also studying Process Orientated Psychology. She works from her Peckham Studio, her ‘dream palace,’ where she goes to ground her ideas, make models and mock-ups, and as a space for collaboration.

Sunera Sadicali was born in 1982 in Mozambique and later moved to Lisbon. She grew up in a family that was part of the Bohra Community; they were (and still are) the only members in Portugal/Iberic Peninsula. She underwent female genital cutting, or khatna, at the age of 8 in Pakistan, while visiting her grandparents on vacation. She moved to Spain to study medicine at the age of 19 and finished her Family Medicine residency in Madrid. Since 2015, she has lived and worked in the south of Sweden with her partner and three lovely kids. She has been politically active since the birth of her second child in 2012, with a focus on women’s issues, decolonial feminism, anti-racism, and healthcare activism.

Naomi Wachs has a B.S. in Theater from Northwestern University and a Masters in Social Work (A.M.) from the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration. While at S.S.A., her concentration was in clinical social work with a focus on art-based methods, LGBTQ affirmative practice, and trauma-informed practice. From 2015-2017, as a German Chancellor Fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation under the guidance of Tobe Levin von Gleichen, she explored art-based practices as a tool for trauma healing and restorative dialogue with immigrant and refugee communities affected by FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Currently, Ms. Wachs is a psychotherapist at Connections Health in the Chicagoland area where she works with individuals, couples, families, and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, eating disorders, and relationship and identity concerns. 
This event is sponsored by Sahiyo.

Reflection on Addressing FGC in the Clinic: A Dialogue between Survivors and Healthcare Professionals

By Sandra Yu 

On December 8th, 2020, Sahiyo hosted a webinar featuring several health professionals and  survivors of female genital cutting (FGC) to discuss the necessity for trauma-informed care and cultural competency. The event was an eye-opening and invigorating conversation as the panelists discussed the failures of the current medical system and necessary next steps to improve systemic care for survivors of violence. 

Renee Bergstrom and Sarata Kande, two outspoken advocates against FGC, provided unique and moving perspectives about how cultural competency and vulnerability are key to providing better care. The juxtaposition between their Voices to End FGM/C videos and their spoken statements on the panel about their past experiences with healthcare professionals was truly powerful. 

“Once it’s done to you, you are forbidden to ever mention it to anybody,” Kande said. “But when you share your story, it feels good.” 

In response, Deborah Ottenheimer, M.D., detailed how she identifies and speaks with survivors of FGC in an inclusive, vulnerable, and caring manner. Karen McDonnell, Ph.D., a public health specialist and creator of the The George Washington University FGM Toolkit, also addressed the critical need for providers to learn about FGC from a public health perspective, expanding on the treatment of FGC as a subsector of gender-based violence. Mariam Sabir, a Sahiyo volunteer and 4th-year medical student, gave an unsettling glimpse into the current state of medical education surrounding FGC as she described her interactions with peers and faculty on the topic. 

The central theme that arose was the importance of communication, whether it’s between healthcare providers, communities, the general public, or patient-doctor interactions. McDonnell speaks to the creation and normalization of the language used to describe genitalia. Having the right vocabulary to communicate about female genitalia is the first step to having genuine conversations about FGC. Communication between a patient and their doctor is even more crucial for building trust. Knowledge is not enough to make a person feel safe and comfortable.

Bergstrom and Kande alluded to their individual experiences grappling with healthcare providers that fail to embrace vulnerability. Building trust and allowing for vulnerability in the clinic are learned skills that are often overlooked in medical education. The culture of silence surrounding the practice of FGC is pervasive, but we are moving toward a future where silence does not need to be the norm, especially in the clinic where trust is paramount to care. 

Watch the recording of this event here.

Read the transcript here.