Why I shared my experience at Voices to End FGM/C with the medical community

By Mariam Sabir

I had the opportunity to participate in the Voices to End FGM/C project with Sahiyo, StoryCenter and The George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health in November 2019 where a diverse group of survivors and health professionals shared their experiences with FGM/C. 

I am currently a fourth-year medical student at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. I will be applying for residency this year to Family Medicine in the hope to provide a form of care that encompasses all factions of patients’ lives.

Meeting and listening to the stories of these wonderful women empowered me to discover my role in ending FGM/C. My role, I determined, was to increase awareness among health professionals. It is vital that physicians learn to identify survivors during a woman’s physical exam and learn how to approach this sensitive subject with discretion.

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While having no past experience in presenting FGM/C to the public, I decided that perhaps a poster presentation would be the best initial step. The American Academy of Family Physicians National Conference which is attended by thousands of medical students and residents every year seemed like the perfect opportunity to spark discussion amongst the family physicians who see their patients regularly for annual physicals. My colleague, Zahra Qaiyumi, and I wanted the poster to be engaging while also conveying the statistical data related to FGM/C and a description of the project itself. However, just like the project, it needed to have a personal touch which is why I decided to use pictures of real participants from the project itself, as well as their dialogue.  

Due to COVID-19, the conference shifted to a virtual platform where our poster was displayed in the “Poster Hall” for any member of the conference to view at any time. Although I was unable to engage in lively discussions about FGM/C the way I had imagined, this is just the start to what I hope will be several more medical conferences and presentations.

 

Voices Series: Why I create art that evokes hope for survivors of FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Musfira Shaffi

Working on this project was challenging in many ways. Anyone reading Rhobi’s words will immediately be struck by the strength and bravery in her story. My job was to merely complement it with imagery that would evoke a similar visceral reaction in the viewer.

The responsibility of effectively conveying the sensitive subject matter is one that I struggled with, which is why I chose collage as a technique for visual storytelling. I wanted to fuse the private and the public, which is why I paired archival images from Rhobi’s childhood with royalty-free stock imagery, in order to depict the universality of her story. I used a severe palette of red, black and grey to affirm the physical and psychological trauma of female genital cutting.

Rhobi’s story is in equal parts heartbreaking and exhilarating, which, in turn, inspired me to create a moving allegory that would evoke memory, violence, and finally, hope. 

 

Voices Series: How I found purpose through survivors' stories

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Debasmita Dasgupta

Working on this project has been life-changing. Not that I did not know about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), but talking directly to people who had to go through such traumatic experiences brought me closer to the truth. I was absolutely moved by the courage of two of the participants, who dared to speak up despite all odds. That courage is irresistible and I am sure it will continue to inspire many more souls like mine.

I feel fortunate that I could tell their stories through my art. I am delighted that my art found a purpose. I am hopeful that my art will make an attempt to light up some of the dark corners of the world, where the peril of FGM/C still exists. In solidarity!

Voices Series: Why your story is worth sharing

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Mariam Sabir 

I walked into the workshop thinking, “I should’ve just came as a volunteer, not as a participant. I don’t even have a story to tell especially since I am not a survivor of female genital cutting (FGC) myself.”

Another thought was,“I am just a medical student, what insight can I give them from a health perspective when I have not even started practicing yet?”

All these anxious thoughts were left far behind within a few hours of “story circle,” which is a part of the workshop where participants sit in a circle and share their story. I cannot explain how I felt during those few hours while hearing each participant’s powerful story and bonding with such incredibly strong women. I felt humbled and honored, moved and motivated to be in the presence of such courage and passion.

When it was my turn, I was surprised at how much I wanted to say! I thought to myself, I can do this. I can do this for each and every woman who has undergone FGC and every survivor who is still struggling with its consequences. I am the future of medicine and if it doesn’t start here, then where? If there’s one place a woman should feel safe to discuss FGC, it should be with a medical professional who is expected to have some knowledge about this issue. 

Sahiyo and StoryCenter cultivated an extremely friendly and judgement-free zone with a strong sense of sisterhood: allowing everyone to feel comfortable enough to share their story. They allowed us to dig deeper to retrieve those crucial moments within our stories that relayed everything we wanted in just a few words. In addition, StoryCenter made it extremely easy to create that story in a way that matched our vision.

I hope that this blog encourages more women to come forward with their stories.

You have a story and it matters.

It will help break the circle of silence that has allowed FGC to continue under the pretense of tradition and culture. 

Voices Series: Why I, as an artist, collaborated with survivors of FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Esther Elia

As an artist, I wait for moments like the Voices to End FGM/C workshop with excitement and anticipation–moments where my passion can be linked with the passions of others to create projects that bring to light the true injustices of our world, including the traditions that have fallen through the cracks and deserve a critical eye.

I got to collaborate with two women who have the foresight, courage, and self-awareness to question a tradition that has been taken for granted, and thrust it into the public eye so that others may also think critically about the effect FGM/C has on women. It was my great privilege to be a part of this project and create images that would impact the viewer, and most accurately reflect the storyteller.

For a subject matter so wrought with strong emotion, simplicity of image became my strategy. The story was the main character, and my art functioned as the supporting characters, giving the main message its meaning. This is a project that I will always remember and be proud to have been a part of.

Voices Series: How I got a whole new perspective on FGM/C

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Angela Peabody

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to do something I had not done before. I participated in one of Sahiyo’s Voices to End FGM/C storytelling workshops in Washington, D.C. The experience was engaging for me. Although I have a television news background, I found myself fascinated at the thought of learning how to make my own video.

I missed the first day of the 3-day experience, due to a family emergency. I was discouraged because I thought missing the first day was crucial to what was expected during the workshop. How wrong I was; Mariya and Amy [of Sahiyo and StoryCenter] called me the evening of the first day, and briefed me on what I had missed that day. They also advised me on what to expect the following day when I joined the group.

When I entered the room that morning, I must admit that I felt a bit apprehensive, not knowing any of the attendees. I was greeted warmly by Mariya, which was not surprising. But Amy came over and formally introduced herself and proceeded to introduce me to everyone else in the room. Everyone seemed welcoming and pleasant, which helped set the mood for my own comfort. Later that morning, I saw a couple of participants whom I knew. Before the end of the day, I had become familiar with a participant who followed a vegan diet as I do. She and I found much to share with each other. I was pleased that I did not need to concern myself with whether there would be food conducive to my diet. There was a vegan muffin waiting for me in the morning, and when we broke for lunch, a vegan sandwich had already been ordered. I had also become familiar with someone who is engaged to a Liberian. Since Liberia is my country of origin, she and I shared unlimited information about that country.    

Amy did an introduction of video making, and what the preparations entailed to make a video. We first needed to write the script of the video. Then we recorded the script in our own voices, which would later become the audio of the video. It was quite a strategic process; yet, it was intriguing. The homework for the evening was to find photographs to match the script, which was a challenge for me. We could not use stock images, especially due to the intellectual property law. The images needed to be real life photos. I did my search and found several photos, but I was not sure how they would blend with what I had written in my story.

The final day was full of matching photos and audio. Amy gave us a course in combining the images and the audio. As she demonstrated on the big screen, we followed her instructions by doing our individual videos. We were even taught how to add the credits at the end of the video. With a lot of help from my newfound future fellow Liberian, I had my video ready by mid-afternoon. I learned to superimpose images so that my story had a more impactful result.

At the end of the 3rd day, we were asked to share with the group what affects the workshop had on us. The inspiration to share our stories was effective; whether or not a participant had experienced female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), or if she had had a different encounter with FGM/C, telling our stories through the eyes of our videos was enthralling. We ended the evening with a preview of everyone’s video. As an advocate against FGM/C, I have seen and heard stories at various levels, but those videos gave me a whole new perspective.  

In summary, I congratulate Sahiyo and StoryCenter for holding these workshops. It is a great experience for not only survivors of FGM/C but also for advocates, health providers, and everyone working to end the practice of FGM/C. I am glad I was a part of it. 

 

Voices Series: How listening to survivors' stories made me a better advocate

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Karen Kwok, MSN, FNP-BC

I sought participation in the Voices to End FGM/C workshop to better understand the patient experience of survivors of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). With increased awareness, I hope to be a better advocate and provider for women’s physical and mental health. The best practices for addressing FGM/C applies to all patient scenarios with creating safe space for active listening, appreciative inquiry and openness for building long-term rapport (if counseling is requested), and providing necessary physical and mental health services and referral resources without judgement.

Challenges to addressing FGM/C include the limited time with provider productivity demands, few available gynecological surgeons specializing in FGM/C labiaplasty with insurance coverage, and few resources for culturally competent mental health services.

Long-term consequences of FGM/C include long-term emotional anguish, gynecological and gastrointestinal pain, and obstetric complications. With the long-term relationship in primary care advocacy, family medicine providers are best positioned to support patient sexuality with initial and ongoing training in female anatomy, counseling strategies on gender orientation and sexual positivity, and patient care best practices. From this workshop, I hope to improve my skills in FGM/C counseling and gynecological health service delivery with increased awareness of women’s sexuality in the global context.

 

 

 

 

 
 

Reflections on the Voices alumni COVID-19 storytelling workshop

By Lara Kingstone

Sahiyo held a StoryCenter-led COVID-19 storytelling session for Voices To End FGM/C alumni in May. The session was created to continue building community online and offer a space for women to share their stories during the pandemic. 

This workshop was designed to be an informal and relaxed space for those affected by female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). By sharing lived experiences during the time of COVID-19, we sought to provide a space where these women could express emotion, thoughts and questions to a sisterhood of nonjudgmental ears. I was reminded, as I am in so many of the spaces created by women, how unbelievably resilient we are even now. Participants shared stories of their lives and I was blown away by the resilience, grit and sustained strength these women exhibited.

It must be noted that this session was held days after the shameless murder of George Floyd, as protests against police brutality and hundreds of years of structural racism began to spark. 

It was incredible, speaking to women from different locations in the world, in different kinds of quarantines, some with families, some alone. We all are experiencing this chapter differently, but share common threads. 

Multiple participants spoke to the experience of being overwhelmed, angry and uncertain. 

The content spoken about during this session was confidential, but themes of frustration with the flawed systems in the United States continued to rise.

Trauma has come up for a lot of people in the past few weeks, and months as well. We need to consistently allow ourselves time to reflect, and vent and process. I’m so grateful that part of Sahiyo’s work is creating these opportunities for healing.

Voices Series: A Reflection on a nine-month journey

By Su Sun

When I was contacted by Mariya in the beginning of 2019 to join the Voices to End FGM/C workshop, I’d just found out I was pregnant. Previous experiences of obstetric trauma roamed around my head and it seemed to me that this project could be an opportunity to reunify two vital experiences that I’ve carried with me rather silently: khatna and violence during the delivery of my first child. Khatna follows us in every period of our lives, as a shadow, as a fear, a vacillation, whenever we have to deal with our bodies. How much better could I tell these stories, as I vividly remembered them, if not using the format of a poem? Verses that revive and denounce.

Additionally, it was important to me to turn the focus on who is the perpetrator of this traumatic experience and highlight the systems of oppression operating behind them: patriarchy and racism entangled. Nine months of a journey where my belly was growing and the story was being created. The experience of using the digital storytelling format, the first time for me, was a fulfilling one, with encouraging and inspiring dialogues with the team (both Mariya and Amy), flexibility to use our ideas as means of expression. Continuous communication and feedback. It was both creative and therapeutic to imagine the story and how to build it. Moreover, I am very thankful for being part of this project along with other women.

 

 

 

 
 

Voices Series: Why we must continue to protect our girls

This blog is part of a series of reflective essays by participants of the Voices to End FGM/C workshops run by Sahiyo and StoryCenter. Through residential and online workshops on digital storytelling, Voices to End FGM/C enables those who have been affected by female genital mutilation/cutting to tell their stories through their own perspectives, in their own words.

By Rhobi Samwelly

I decided to share a story about my experience with female genital mutilation (FGM) because I want people to know who I am, and learn through my touching story. I hope my story will help other girls and bring change to our community. The story reflects the reality of what I passed through and what I felt as a girl and the first born from my family. The story is informing other people to understand the tradition of FGM and its implications. The story keeps me with tears in my eyes every time when sharing with different people.

Sharing my story with the Voices to End FGM/C workshop was the right thing to help other people learn. I was encouraged to be part of the group in order to change our community with this tradition of FGM. I shared with women who’ve gone through painful and traumatic experiences as other FGM survivors. I enjoyed the courage and passion that each of them embraced during the entire time. The storytelling process was smooth and very educational. I was able to revise my own story and put it in a way that I am confident and make a difference to our communities.

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My advocacy on FGM is focused on community education, sharing my story and providing safe houses for girls to be rescued and protected when forced by their families to undergo FGM. I have managed to rescue and protect 1607 girls from FGM and early marriages. Many girls are cut while knowing the effects of FGM, and no one is ready to protect them in their houses during the seasonal cutting. As an activist, I believe that FGM will end when we use the combination of different strategies in the fight against it. 

I know it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of girls and young women. I believe I am unique and my story is unique because of the painful experience of nearly dying and feelings that I had during the cutting. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will continue my activism and rescue girls to be protected at the safe houses until FGM will be history.