Malaysian NGO Asian Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) and British charity Orchid Project are jointly developing a new Asia Network to End FGM/C, to strengthen movements to end the practice of FGC in Asian communities.
To shape this network and its priorities, all interested organisations, activists, and stakeholders working in the region on FGM/C or related issues in Asia are invited to fill out this consultation survey. The closing date for this survey will be 22nd December 2019.
On Nov 4, 2019, Sahiyo’s co-founder Mariya Taher took part in a round-table session at the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Annual Conference in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the Voices to End FGM/C project. Participants were able to view a sample of the digital stories created by survivors. They were also able to learn how by utilizing participatory storytelling methods, we can educate communities, health professionals, and policymakers on female genital cutting. For more information, visit APHA’s website.
On April 10, the U.S. Department of Justice decided not to appeal the November 2018 judgement by a US District Court which ruled that the federal law banning Female Genital Cutting is unconstitutional. The District Court had stated that FGC is a “local criminal activity” to be handled at the state level and that Congress did not have the authority to enact the federal law under the commerce clause. While the Department of Justice cites such technicalities as the reason behind its decision not to appeal the District Court’s ruling, it has also urged Congress to address the flaws and problems with the federal law against FGC so that it can be strengthened.
The District Court’s ruling in November came in the case of Dr. Jumana Nagarwala and others, who were charged with performing/aiding female genital cutting in Detroit, Michigan, on nine minor girls.
In positive news, however, 31 out of 50 states in the USA now have laws banning Female Genital Cutting after Idaho, Arkansas, and Utah passed laws to that effect in the past few months.
The Idaho legislature passed a bill outlawing FGC on March 20, and the law will be effective from July. Utah state legislators unanimously passed a bill against FGC a week earlier, on March 14. Meanwhile, the law in Arkansas, passed in February, not only criminalises FGC but also provides for introducing awareness programmes about FGC.
18 states in the US have yet to pass their own laws banning genital cutting for girls and women, which is now vital since the District Court has ruled that FGC is a state-level crime.
Meanwhile, in India, a group of grassroots Muslim women’s organisations in India released a manifesto on March 28 for political parties to take up ahead of the 2019 national Parliamentary election in April and May. The manifesto includes the demand for a special law to ban female genital cutting in India. The Indian Supreme Court is currently hearing a set of petitions demanding a law against FGC, as well as a counter-petition defending FGC on the grounds of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to religious freedom. The liberal Muslim women’s groups that released their “women’s manifesto” hope that India’s leading political parties will commit to ending FGC in their own official election manifestos.
One day, fifteen years ago, while Karen McDonnell was teaching reproductive health at George Washington University (GWU), a student of hers was absent from the class. While that may not seem out of the ordinary, it was quite strange for this particular student. He was a diligent medical doctor from Guinea who attended the university for a Master’s in Public Health. He never missed a class before. Upon his return, Karen asked him if everything was okay.
He told her that he had almost lost his wife.
His wife had given birth to their first child, but when she was young, she underwent female genital cutting (FGC), and it caused complications during the delivery. No one knew how to properly care for her at the hospital while she delivered, and she nearly bled out. In short, those caring for her were unprepared for her case.
“This isn’t something I was interested in yesterday,” Karen said, alluding to the years she’s spent on this project and reflecting on how far she’s come in understanding FGC. She remembers hearing about it in undergraduate school. Back then, FGC was simply an issue mentioned in passing during class. For the students in her graduate school at that time, it may not have seemed like there was anything to be done about it. “It’s a cultural practice, you can’t change culture. So let’s make it safer,” Karen said the instructors told students. The best solution at the time was medicalization, perhaps even providing clean blades. Karen knew that it still didn’t seem right and didn’t feel comfortable with the idea. The blade may be cleaner, but the potential health issues would remain.
Karen pressed on working at George Washington University, spending decades focusing on domestic violence in her work. But the incident with her student sparked the motivation for advocacy. “That student changed my life in opening my world to [FGC].”
Since then, Karen has worked with the former students and current students to educate others about how to care for those who have undergone FGC. She simply started by talking more in-depth about the practice with her students so they were made aware of the topic. Then two years ago, when the Office on Women’s Health came out with a funding mechanism for a medical project, Karen thought, Finally, we’re getting some attention here! They began working with survivors and RAHMA: a DC-based organization that addresses the stigma around HIV/AIDS in the American-Muslim community, as well as advocates against FGC. The team at GWU was awarded the health-focused funding to do work on a project that would teach other health practitioners how to give provisional care for those who have undergone FGC. Thus started the development of an online toolkit to educate women and healthcare providers on a topic that was once shrouded in secrecy. This toolkit is intended to be easily accessible and resource-filled with proper terminology and answers to questions that aren’t usually asked.
The members of the team include a variety of survivors, advocates, health professionals, and others on-board with the multi-year program. In-depth interviews were conducted for both survivors of multiple countries and health-care providers that worked with survivors. The interviewers asked a myriad of questions: Tell us your experience? How did you get involved? If you had a toolkit, what would you want in there? What would you want providers to know? What do you want women to know?
What’s even better is that women are coming forward with the willingness to share their stories, thanks to increased awareness and support from organizations such as Sahiyo that encourage them to do so. A turning point for these women had to do with their health: they started questioning why they had urinary infections and trauma they’ve carried since childhood. Beginning this conversation was the first step.
The online toolkit is useful for survivors, their doctors, and others in the community. It will have an optimized search and curated content, which ensures that the information is scholarly, reliable, accurate, and useful for the website visitors. While doctors would ideally ask their patients about certain conditions that affect them, this resource can potentially fill in their gaps of knowledge when interacting with their patients. Additionally, the kit would cover essential concepts for survivors to ask health professionals. The team plans to have a community tool section that can be used by men and religious community leaders.
Karen and many others are making a difference by working on this resource for survivors and their doctors. By understanding the complications that accompany their condition, it will ensure they receive proper support.
More on Brionna:
Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.
In March 2019, Sahiyo U.S. hosted our second annual activist retreat for women connected to the Bohra community who are concerned about the issue of FGC within the community. Sahiyo understands it takes many to bring about social change, and as a result, we work with individuals, organizations, and coalitions in a collaborative fashion. As advocates and activists, we are better together and can find the best solutions if we collaborate and work as one.
The Sahiyo Activist retreat helps to build a network of U.S. based Bohra activists by 1) strengthening relationships with one another, 2) sharing best practices and providing tools for activists to utilize in their anti-FGC advocacy work moving forward. The retreat was also an opportunity for advocates/activists to discuss both the challenges and opportunities they face in advocating against FGC. This year, Sahiyo also initiated our peer support program, Saathi, a program attended to build a support system for activists. As per Sahiyo’s 2017 Activists Needs Assessment, findings suggest that having a support system in place was crucial towards building a critical mass of voices seeking to create change. Both the Activist Retreat and Saathi program seek to do so.
To read reflections from participants who attended the retreat, click here.
(Aisha is one of our Sahiyo Story participants who continues to use her voice to advocate for change on female genital cutting.)
At the Pro-Voice storytelling event at the Frogmore in Boston on March 31, there were three storytellers, including myself. The event was organized by Rev. Susan Chorley to contradict the narrative of shame, judgement, and stigma directed at women’s bodies and women’s lives. It was intimate in the sense that we created a small circle and we also paired in groups to engage in discussion with the attendees after each storyteller presented their piece. I was the second storyteller.
I told the crowd I experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) when I was five, but I didn’t really process it until I was thirteen. It took me many years to understand it and its impact on my life. I speak about it because I don’t want to be silent anymore.
For me, I’m still getting the hang of storytelling and so I was nervous when I first got up, but the feedback I got after the event was over made me glad I shared my story. A lot of the attendees were shocked to learn about the prevalence of FGM around the world and how many women it affects. One woman in particular stated that she was unaware that such a practice was happening here in the United States, and they were shocked to find out that it impacted so many girls around the world.
During our small group conversation after my speech, we discussed a cultural or family practice we would undo for our people or community and how it would change our lives. I gave a brief example of a 10-year-old girl who died as a result of FGM in Somalia last July. I stated that I wanted to undo this practice so that innocent lives do not have to suffer like the girls who’ve died because of FGM, and many other girls who will potentially experience it.
When each storyteller told their story, the attendees would write something positive on three cards for the storyteller, which they would get to take with them at the end of the event. After the last discussion, Rev. Chorley, who is also the Executive Director of Exhale, thanked the storytellers, attendees, volunteers and gave storytellers a book along with cards.
Overall, I was happy to share my story with the general public, I didn’t expect to receive so much positive feedback. One woman in particular I remembered stated that she was moved by my story. After the event was over people were networking. This older American woman came up to me and stated that she was not ready for the story I told. She was in disbelief that this had happened to me and thanked me for sharing my story and bringing awareness to such a private and intimate practice. This moment in particular made me realize why it was important to tell my story of surviving FGM. She added that hopefully what I am doing can bring change for girls.
As Sahiyo’s U.S. operations and programs have grown, in 2018, we invited various individuals from a host of backgrounds and professions to join our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board. The advisory board provides strategic advice to the management of Sahiyo and ensures that we continue fulfilling our mission to empower communities to end Female Genital Cutting and create positive social change through dialogue, education, and collaboration based on community involvement.
This month, we are pleased to highlight Zehra Patwa, who has graciously agreed to serve as the Vice-Chair for our inaugural U.S. Advisory Board.
1) Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was born and brought up in the UK and moved to the US in the 1990s. I was born into the Dawoodi Bohra community and remain there with my family here in the US. In 2012, I saw a video of a Bohra woman talking about her khatna (FGM/C) and it opened up a whole world that I had previously been oblivious to. At that same time, I found out that I, too, had undergone the cut at the age of 7 but I have no recollection of it. Despite having no memory of my experience, I decided I could not be silent about this practice in what I had always known to be an educated and progressive community with strong women role models. I co-founded WeSpeakOut with several other women who were determined to end khatna in the Bohra community and we have helped open up the conversation on this once secret practice. We have also shed light on the practice in the Indian Supreme Court and hope to have an anti-FGM/C law on the books in the near future, I am also involved on the Board of IRIS, a refugee resettlement agency working to help refugees make a successful life in the US. I feel very strongly that we need to see each other as human beings first rather than getting bogged down with which group we identify with.
2) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo and what opportunities have you been involved in?
When I first got involved with activism, it was in a Whatsapp group with the founders of Sahiyo and several other women discussing our khatna experiences and encouraging each other to speak out against this injustice. Since then, my connection with Sahiyo has blossomed! Sahiyo and WeSpeakOut have done several campaigns together, notably, Each One Reach One, where we developed helpful guides to start the conversation about khatna between friends and family. I have attended several Sahiyo retreats, as well as participating in the wonderful Sahiyo Stories workshop where I created a video describing my feelings toward the reactions I have faced for speaking out about khatna.
3) How has your involvement impacted your life?
Finding out about this practice in my community in my forties set me off on a path of activism that I would never have foreseen. Working with Sahiyo has taught me that social change takes time and in order for cultural norms to shift, there needs to be a groundswell of support and shared experiences. I feel confident that with so many people speaking out, that this groundswell of support is growing every day and that gives me hope for the young girls in the Bohra community.
4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?
Listen to those who you may not agree with and try to find common ground. You will find that even if you disagree about something as important as khatna, you can find mutual understanding and come to a place where you are able to communicate at a deep level. That is the beginning of true social change.
I often wondered what the two women closest to me thought about khatna. I wondered because I never really talked with my sister or my mom about it. Well, we talked, but not with much purpose. I thought they were against it, just like me. I told them that I was going to a Sahiyo Activist Retreat where I would meet other Bohri women who are against khatna, otherwise known as female genital cutting. They said okay.
At the retreat, I realized that before I advocate publicly, I needed to process my own situation privately. I had khatna performed on me when I was young. I have not talked much about it. My story is much like most. I was probably under 10 years old at the time. Seems like most remember it being done when they were seven. Perhaps that was also the age when it was done to me. I was playing outside with a friend. I’m not sure what we were playing, but it seemed like a normal day and I was doing something perfectly normal. An aunt called out and said we were going somewhere. Was I to go get ice cream? I remember not wanting to leave my playmate and crying. I was taken to a relative’s home not too far from where we lived. It’s been decades, but the memory is vivid. We walked up the stairs. There were two women at the house. One held my hand. The other pulled down my panties. I remember crying. It drowned out what was happening to me.
A sharp pain. Blood. Blade. That’s what I remember. I don’t remember how I got home.
For the next few days, I remember the pain. I could not walk properly. I was sore. I walked with my legs apart, afraid of scraping the area that hurt.
Time moved on. And I suppressed my memory of what happened.
Years later, we heard of an African woman talking about FGM in the news. We all were outraged. A cousin told me that what happened to us when we were young was FGM. What? I was surprised. And somewhat glad. Because I was able to finally understand what happened when I was younger. Khatna was FGM. It was like solving a mystery of my life.
Life went on. I became sexually active and curious. Sex hurt and orgasm was hard. I asked my doctors about it. Most of them did not know. I asked my gynecologist to check me out. They said they saw a nick, but nothing much. Nothing much.
I often wonder if it is in my head if the pain I feel is because of something else. The pain is sharp. And, when certain parts are touched, it is unforgiving.
There is so much silence around khatna that there is not a good understanding of the harm to women. I do not know if I am the only one, or if there are others who feel this way. Are there others like me who are suffering from khatna decades later? Are there others like me who can’t have healthy sexual relationships with their husbands? Are there others like me suffering in silence?
After coming back from the retreat, I talked to my mom about my experience with khatna. She was surprised to know that it had impacted me long-term. I was surprised to learn that she was not impacted by it at all. I also talked to my sister. She said that she blindly follows the Bohri teachings and is neutral on the issue. And, like my mom, it has not impacted her long- term. I thought my sister would automatically be against it. But I was wrong.
Next day, I recapped the story to my husband, who does not share my religion. While he was sympathetic, his anger turned into islamophobic rhetoric and a focus on my “crazy” culture. There are so many “crazy” cultures, and perhaps mine is another use case for patriarchy.
I don’t hate my culture, the people who performed khatna on me, or the people who defend the practice. I want the judgment to stop. I want the fear to stop. I want to create a safe place for conversation and understanding.
I know there is work to do to change attitudes about khatna. I learned that the work is much closer to home than I thought.
(An alias was provided to protect the survivor’s identity and family.)
There was once a girl who was seven-years-old in Mumbai, India. She and her mother visited a woman so that she could have her “khatna” done. Her mother was an educated woman and later a principal of a school. Today, she was having done to her daughter what her mother had done to her. The mother did her research too, because the woman they visited was known to be quick and effective. There were claims that she inflicted the least amount of pain possible. The little girl paid her respects to the woman who would do the khatna without quite knowing why she was there. Before she knew it, she felt the pain. Then the woman guided her to the sink to wash her hands and pressed two cookies in her small palm–cookies that had been a favorite treat until then.
After the procedure was over, the mother carried the girl down the stairs. She was considered a “big girl” at the time and hadn’t been carried in ages. They got a taxi as well, despite the family being poor. The mere presence of the taxi testified to the importance of the event, not to mention the trouble she would have walking back to her uncle’s house. The mother spoke with an aunt there, saying she thought her daughter would cry for hours; but she seemed fine now, though. However, she was far from fine. Fatima wouldn’t talk about this event for another four decades.
As an adult, Fatima gained the courage to speak up about FGC. Three years ago, when Masooma Ranalvi started to advocate against the practice, Fatima found her voice. A survey by Sahiyo was also done, which revealed that no one spoke about the practice, but continued it even though the community that practiced it was considered educated and progressive. Female genital cutting (FGC) was a generational secret that about 80% of the surveyed population underwent. There is an understandable cause for worry within the community if one does not undergo it. Skipping out on the procedure could lead to a handful of issues, including a loss in social standing, or the local clergy harassing parents if you’re in the United States with your family back in India. Families persuade their women to have their daughters cut they believe to purify them and prevent promiscuity. Some succumb to the pressure, while others lie that the procedure was done so the constant nagging can subside. There’s also the option of vacation cutting (sending the girl away on a “vacation” for her to be cut) for those in America. Even all the way in Detroit, a personal shame makes it so that one may only talk about it amongst their closest friends. Fatima knows another woman, a lawyer in Houston, who went to Pakistan at age seven in order to be cut. It’s believed by some to be the ideal age because the girl is young and submissive, but old enough to remember what was done to her and continue the tradition when she has daughters.
Fatima is happily married with her husband and has two adult children, both boys. However, if she ever had a daughter, she would not have let her undergo FGC. A friend of hers commented on this once, claiming she was fortunate to not have to deal with female issues, like urinary tract infections. Fatima’s mother was visiting at the time and overheard their conversation.
Her mother said something along the lines of, “Oh, our girls don’t get infections because we have this done to them,” referring to FGC.
The friend did not know of FGC and probably would have asked more if Fatima didn’t interject. “That’s not true,” she told her visibly shocked mother. “Let’s not talk about it now.”
Unfortunately, the time to talk about FGC never came for Fatima and her mother. When thinking about her late mother, Fatima believes that she would be upset with herself in learning that while her mother had the intention to genuinely help Fatima, the incident only harmed her at seven-years-old, and still does today.
Fatima doesn’t have any physical problems as a result of being cut, but the trauma from the event still resides within her. After all these years, she remembers the pain. She believes that she lives a relatively normal and happy life, but the memory of being cut is there.
She can’t talk about it without crying, even though she doesn’t want to cry. “Why was this done to me?” Fatima said that she didn’t want her tears to weaken the message to end cutting. Fatima wants FGC survivors to open up, speak up, and get the help they need. The next generation needs to be protected and supported. Fatima said that even with leading a relatively normal life, the trauma is still there. “I will never be a full woman. I will never know [the] full sex experience, and I will never know how it feels to be uncut.”
More on Brionna:
Brionna is currently a high school senior in the District of Columbia. She likes drawing, helping others, and being able to contribute to great causes.
My ultimate career goal is to work in sexual health with underserved populations. Access to sexual and reproductive health services is incredibly difficult in most states in the United States. It is even more difficult for people living in low-income areas, for the LGBTQIA community, for immigrants, and for people coming from non-Western cultures and perspectives. In designing a research project, these constraints to care services were something I wanted to focus on in some capacity. Genital cutting is a health concern most Western practitioners are unprepared to encounter. Considering the lack of research into psychological and sociocultural relationships to FGC, I felt even the small scale research I would be able to conduct as an undergraduate student could still have an impact by increasing the body of knowledge available.
When I first started working on my project to explore some of the social and cultural factors impacting the quality of life for FGC survivors living in the United States, I was unprepared for the challenges in data collection I would face. I knew that some of the organizations I contacted to recruit participants might decline to participate, but I did not expect so many to not respond at all. The four organizations I originally selected to contact became twelve, and only one yielded any participant data.
My original aim was to collect data from thirty survivors. I figured this was a modest goal, and between the multiple organizations I had contacted that it would not be impossible. I have collected data from eleven survivors. After four months of managing communications between a dozen organizations, I collected just over one third of my initial goal. Even for women who had reached out to support services and organizations, there was still this barrier of stigma and shame preventing the kind of data collection I had hoped for.
The difficulties in data collection lead me to exploring large international databases for information from large scale surveys I could use in addition to my own survey results. I was determined not to let the struggles in data collection stop me from completing this project that had been in the works for over a year. If anything, the barrier in data collection only provided further evidence to the extent of the need for additional research. The taboo nature surrounding FGC and its impact on survivors will never improve if the body of knowledge on the subject remains so limited.
The direction my project has taken has revealed a cycle that keeps this field of research from advancing. The stigma surrounding FGC, the blame and self doubt many women feel about their experience with it, and the difficulties in speaking out against FGC in practicing communities makes collecting data from survivors extremely difficult. The lack of data and research about FGC makes it difficult to reduce the social attitudes and survivor guilt, and support survivors in efforts to speak out. In short, you cannot add to the body of research without data, but you cannot collect sufficient data because of the taboo nature, which an increased body of research could help improve.
From the little data I have been able to collect, there is a clear negative correlation between how supportive someone’s community is of FGC and how that makes women feel – the more supportive a community is of FGC, the more negatively a woman feels about that, and vice versa. Additionally, women in communities that are supportive or very supportive of FGC have had fewer sources of personal support than women in communities that are unsupportive or very unsupportive of FGC. This speaks to the unique challenges in reaching women living in FGC supportive/practicing communities for resources and support, compared to survivors who no longer live in FGC practicing communities. I am still intending to try to address through my research the unique constraints facing survivors in communities and areas supportive of FGC, and the additional social and emotional problems these women may face. I just have to think beyond the scope of the data I have collected through my survey.
As the direction of my research project has morphed and changed over the last few months, it has only served to emphasize the need for this kind of research. The social stigma and shame cannot be addressed if research is not available to speak to the needs and support necessary for survivors. As an undergraduate student, the scope of my research is limited, but I hope even that can be a step along the path to better understanding and support for survivors of FGC.
More on Cameron:
Cameron Adelman is a senior neuroscience major and women and gender studies minor at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He has been working on his research project about social and emotional effects of FGC since last year. The findings of his research among women who have experienced FGC suggest a number of sociocultural confounds in trying to develop and deliver support systems for women living in practicing communities. Cameron’s hope is to help advise best practices that take these factors, as well as additional risks to wellbeing, into account.