Digital advocacy: The future of activism for survivors and activists

by Sandra Yu 

Activism is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.

Prior to Sahiyo, I thought to be an activist was to be loud. Anything less than protests and demonstrations picketing for change outside the White House was not really activism. Actionable change came from legislation and policy changes. I scoffed at digital activism – trending hashtags and posting black squares on Instagram didn’t mean you were an activist.

At Sahiyo as a programs intern, I gained a new appreciation for storytelling and digital advocacy as forms of healing and activism, respectively. In contrast to the physical mobilization of masses in protests, picketing, and policy-based activism, storytelling is a distinctly emotional and psychological mobilization. I remember watching my first Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) video – Change by Rhobi Samwelly.  She shared her story in the short span of 3 minutes and 51 seconds, and in that short period of time, I felt as if I had visualized her pain, trauma, and conviction to end FGM/C. It is through storytelling that one will understand the need for activism; the picketing will come later.

Storytelling is particularly impactful in activism against FGM/C. As a harmful and pervasive social norm in many cultures, FGM/C is silently maintained across generations under the guise of cultural normativity. To break the culture of silence is to risk ostracization from their families and communities. Yet, many survivors have taken that plunge and have engaged in storytelling to protect future women from being cut. As allies, it is our job to amplify their stories so that more people may hear them and become inspired to create change.

I recently attended a webinar that spoke about how we can best amplify voices through digital advocacy. Digital Storytelling and Advocacy: How Stories Can Support Progressive Change was hosted by StoryCenter and moderated by Amy Hill; one of Sahiyo’s co-founders, Mariya Taher, presented on the Voices campaign as a panelist. In the webinar, Amy speaks about the need for storytelling as an avenue of advocacy. She presents research on how telling and listening to stories can increase self-esteem and wellbeing, help communities bond and become politicized, and inspire people to take action for change. I translate that as storytelling allows for transformation. It allows survivors and community members to transform the trauma of FGM/C on their bodies and mental health into a point of connection with others of the same community.

Across activist communities, storytelling allows for a transformation from discomfort to vulnerability. Isabel, another intern at Sahiyo, wrote about her experience with StoryCenter and Sahiyo’s co-hosted webinar, Intersecting Stories, where she engaged in intimate storytelling that glimpsed into “the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.”

I believe storytelling has a way of transcending the individual to bind communities together through shared values and experiences. In the current age of digitization, we see stories framed in a variety of mediums such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. While it may be easy to get lost in trends, hashtags, and stories in digital activism, I find that digital advocacy is equally powerful as traditional media in allowing us to amplify the voices and stories of survivors. The process of connecting people and communities across the world through a screen is an important concept to develop. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that creates change through digital advocacy and storytelling.

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Programs Intern Cate Cox

Cate is passionate about women’s rights and human rights and hopes to enter into those fields once she graduates from Simmons University, where she is studying International Relations, Economics, and Arabic. She is excited to work with Sahiyo to help uplift the voices of women everywhere.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I was officially brought on to the Sahiyo team in late August as a programs intern. However, even before that, I’d had my eye on Sahiyo as I knew they were doing really amazing work globally.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a programs intern my main focus is around planning and organizing Sahiyo webinars. This means I help coordinate speakers, create supporting materials, and anything else that comes up. I really love working in this capacity because it gives me such an in-depth understanding of the actual work Sahiyo is doing to create change.   

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Aside from helping me develop my workplace skills, Sahiyo has really helped open my eyes to all the amazing people fighting for change across the world. Even in the few short weeks I have been working with Sahiyo, I have had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring activists and change-makers. Particularly in 2020, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed — and feel like nothing you do actually makes any difference. Having the opportunity to speak to so many amazing women reminds me that we actually do have the ability to create positive change in the world if we are willing to put in the work.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Remember to take care of your mental health. There are many different avenues for activism, from art to webinars to writing, activism comes in many forms. But regardless of its form, activism, particularly about subjects as difficult as these, can take a toll on your mental health. This isn’t to say don’t get involved — definitely do. But be willing to step back and rest every now and then. And remember to listen to your body.

My meaningful experience as an intern at Sahiyo

By Nicole Mitchell

In early 2019, I had the pleasure of joining the Sahiyo team as a Social Media Intern. I remember being a bit nervous, as working fully remote at a new company was something I had never done before. Both my supervisor, Lara Kingstone, and the co-Founder Mariya Taher, were extremely friendly and supportive during the onboarding process. Over time, their passion about ending female genital cutting (FGC) became contagious, to the point where I found myself actually looking forward to doing the work.

At the time, I had a very busy schedule where I was finishing up my senior year of college, doing a concurrent internship in Boston, all while working full-time. Despite this, I found that working for a cause that would change so many lives for the better gave me a sense of fulfillment that I wasn’t expecting. To be honest, I miss this feeling. This is one of the things I thank Sahiyo for because I now know that it is possible to have a job that you can actually be excited about. The dreariness of your typical 9-5 cubicle life that we see in the media, or the idea of hating your job, but enduring it so you can at least enjoy the weekend, doesn’t have to be true for everyone. Many of us can find meaning and enjoyment in our work. 

Working with Sahiyo gave me direction, hope and inspiration for my future. On a more practical level, my internship also gave me tools that allowed for me to transfer easily into a role as a marketing specialist at a Boston–based company after graduating with my B..A. While I know that it is rare to land your dream job the first time, I am glad that I at least have an idea of what type of work I can look for in the future because of my experiences with Sahiyo. 

One of my favorite things I did while at Sahiyo was work on a digital campaign where survivors could tell their stories. This was a powerful experience where women from all over the world came together to share their experiences and take a united stand in ending this practice. I was also responsible for writing and scheduling out the content which helped cultivate my creative, strategic and organizational skills. Overall, I am extremely thankful for this opportunity and am glad I can still be a part of this organization in a volunteer capacity. I would highly recommend this internship to anyone who is looking to develop their marketing skills and are passionate about making the world a better place through elevating the lives of others.

Staff Spotlight: Development Intern Sarrah Hussain

Sarrah is an undergraduate student still exploring what she wants to study at Stanford University. She is passionate about women’s rights and health, especially female genital cutting (FGC). This will be her first time working with a nonprofit organization, and she is excited to create change and uplift voices with the Sahiyo team.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I began following the Sahiyo instagram account and learning about their mission last year, when I became curious to learn more about FGC within my community. Since then, I have actively followed Sahiyo and its work, and when I saw the opening for internships in February I thought I’d shoot my shot. Since May of this year, I am officially a development intern for Sahiyo, and could not be more excited to work with this incredible team to make an impact for an issue I care deeply about.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a development intern, my work is primarily focused on expanding Sahiyo and securing grants and funding opportunities so Sahiyo can do the meaningful work it does.

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

I am still relatively new to Sahiyo, but already Sahiyo has impacted my life because I know I am contributing to a larger mission to create a greater change in the world. I am inspired by the passion I see in those I work with, and happy knowing my work has real meaning.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

I would say take the leap! When first considering applying to Sahiyo, I didn’t think I had the skills necessary to be a development intern, I was scared that I wouldn’t live up to what was asked of me, and I was even a little nervous about being involved with a nonprofit working on such a taboo subject. But I took a leap, applied, and got the position, and I am so happy I did. Though sometimes I feel lost, there is a whole team of wonderful people who want to support you and help you learn. It is really comforting and inspiring to see others who feel the same way as you and simply want to protect future generations of girls.

Volunteer Spotlight: Programs Intern Hunter Kessous

Hunter Kessous is currently an undergraduate at Brandeis University studying Biology, Health: Science Society and Policy, and French. She has been passionate about ending female genital cutting (FGC) ever since she first learned of the practice. Hunter aspires to be a gynecologist and perform reconstructive surgeries for survivors of FGC. Hunter is also a student researcher on an FGC project. She joined Sahiyo in May. 

When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first connected with Sahiyo when I reached out for help with my research project on the movement to abandon FGC. Mariya, one of the co-founders, asked if I would like to volunteer for the summer. When the pandemic started, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get involved. I’m so grateful I’ve been able to work on the Sahiyo team remotely.

What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

I’m a programs intern, which means I am planning webinars. My big project at the moment is a webinar on FGC and education. The topic was inspired by my own experiences with how FGC is taught at my university. I also attend as many webinars as possible in order to learn what information is currently out there, and to see how other webinars are formatted. 

How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

Before my internship with Sahiyo, I read and learned a lot about FGC. Even still, in just the first month of volunteering, I have learned so much more than I anticipated. I’m eager to continue broadening my knowledge and understanding of FGC through my work with Sahiyo. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful anti-FGC advocates and survivors. The movement to abandon FGC consists of a close network, and I am thrilled to join the community and have the opportunity to work with so many inspiring people. 

What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

For every moment you spend working with Sahiyo, you will feel that you are doing something important and worthwhile. You will meet empowering, wonderful people from inside and outside of the Sahiyo team that will make you feel supported and essential to the cause. I encourage anybody interested in joining the Sahiyo team to do so!

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Development Intern Maria Elena Rivera-Beckstrom

Maria Elena Rivera-Beckstrom is a researcher and an instructor with a strong interest in gender and women’s rights, and human rights. She uses her teaching as a platform to raise awareness on gender violence and inequity. She joins Sahiyo so she can contribute to the efforts in ending female genital cutting (FGC) as a development intern. She currently teaches at Salem State University’s Interdisciplinary Studies Department and also works at the Simmons University Institute for Inclusive Leadership.

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo? 

I started with Sahiyo on the week of May 18 as one of the new development interns. I basically found the call for application and looked up Sahiyo. It was actually the first time I learned about the organization, and although I have known about FGC, I did not know that it is also practiced in Asia. I voraciously read the website and decided to apply for the internship.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve? 

As a development intern, I help in funds-sourcing by doing research on grants for which we’re eligible to apply. I also help in developing and planning fundraising campaigns. Later, I believe, I will help out in writing proposals for grants. I also fulfill special assignments for staff members.

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life? 

Since I have joined Sahiyo, I have become more knowledgeable about FGC and its practice in Asia. Although I just basically started, I am also learning more about the operations of a nonprofit. What’s most impactful, however, is that I already feel integrated with a group of people who are driven by the same mission: to end FGC. It is quite amazing to work with people who are passionate about and committed to a cause that addresses a particular issue of gender violence. It gives your life another level of meaning.

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?  

It is always a worthy endeavor to join a group of people for a worthy cause. Sahiyo’s effort to end FGC is a cause worthy of everyone’s time and investment and I encourage you to join us. What we’re doing impacts the lives of girls and women, and when we give even a little of ourselves to others, we make our own lives richer and more meaningful. We welcome you in our journey. Join us.

 

Sahiyo Intern Spotlight: Kendra Davis 

Kendra is a master’s student at Brandeis University studying global health. Prior to attending Brandeis, she was a community health volunteer for three years in Togo, West Africa. Kendra is passionate about educating communities on reproductive health issues. She is excited to contribute her experience, as well as grow with the Sahiyo team. 

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I first learned about Sahiyo in April through my school’s weekly newsletter about internship and volunteer opportunities. I started getting involved with the organization in May as a development intern.

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

So far I have updated monthly budgets and helped brainstorm fundraising campaign ideas. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

I wanted to gain hands-on financial management and budget development skills. I have been very appreciative of how intentional the organization’s leaders have been in ensuring I am exposed to opportunities to learn and strengthen these skills. 

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

While I was onboarding, I was given educational material which helped me grow in my understanding of why female genital cutting (FGC) is practiced even through the passing of laws that have tried to stop it, unfortunately it still persists. I would say educating people about the history and the system that allows this practice to continue is the first step anyone can take. I feel like once you have that foundation, you can see how you can use your skills to take action, if that’s through teaching others, developing media strategies, or being an advocate for someone who has gone through FGC.

 

Sahiyo Volunteer Spotlight: Zahra Qaiyumi

Zahra Qaiyumi completed her undergraduate education at The University of Maryland, studying Physiology, Neurobiology, and Spanish. Afterward, she pursued a Master’s degree in Physiology at Georgetown University. She then moved to the Bay Area and participated in neurobehavioral research while working with adolescents diagnosed with ADHD at the University of California San Francisco’s Neuroscape Center. Currently, she is in her third year of medical school at the Frank H. Netter M.D. School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University. 

1) When and how did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I have been following Sahiyo’s work as an organization for many years, but decided to get involved in the fall of 2019 during what was a rough patch in my personal life for a few reasons, khatna, or female genital cutting (FGC), being one of them. 

2) What does your work with Sahiyo involve?

As a volunteer, I have written pieces interpreting research on FGC, as well as helped put together abstracts and posters in order to disseminate Sahiyo’s work to healthcare providers, survivors, social works, and law enforcement, among other groups. I hope to do more of this type of work with Sahiyo in the future. 

3) How has your involvement with Sahiyo impacted your life?

As someone who grew up in a community where FGC was the norm, my involvement with Sahiyo has been an integral part to self-actualization and healing. I joined Sahiyo at a time where I desperately needed allies who understood my personal struggles with FGC. Since joining, I have been able to use my personal experiences and integrate them with work that will positively impact my career as a healthcare professional. 

4) What words of wisdom would you like to share with others who may be interested in supporting Sahiyo and the movement against FGC?

Sahiyo has taught me that joining a community of peers that are just like you, that have been impacted by the same circumstances you have, can be healing in so many ways. Using experiences that are deeply personal to you in order to make change in the world, no matter how small, is liberating. I encourage anyone who is looking to feel such liberation to support Sahiyo in their goal to end FGC.

Intern Spotlight: Sahiyo Social Media Intern Kavya Palavalasa

Kavya Palavalasa joined Sahiyo’s team as a social media intern in July of 2019. Kavya has interests in film, art, research and gender relations in law, labour and academia. She is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in law at Jindal Global Law School, O.P. Jindal Global University in India. She has not only worked with Citizens for Justice and Peace in Mumbai, but she was also the editor-in-chief of the Centre for Women, Law and Social Change Blog for two years.

1) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

I heard about Sahiyo last December when I was attending a workshop in Himachal Pradesh, India. It was the first time I had a constructive conversation about female genital cutting (FGC), and I wanted to support the movement against the practice in any way I could. I joined Sahiyo as a social media intern in July!

2) What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

As the social media intern, my work has largely included helping manage the social media handles, and content creation for campaigns, as well as for the daily feed.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

Our body is a battleground. It is a struggle for power that often leaves behind scars. This manifests in the practice of FGC, as it establishes control over a woman’s sexual and bodily autonomy. What has been most inspiring about working with Sahiyo is that I have had the opportunity to witness a movement that allows women to encounter their experiences and their bodies as beautiful stories to be narrated, and not just as legal facts. It has been wonderful to closely observe and support this community of kind, brave, and tireless people. While creating content, I have understood the importance of compassionate and respectful language in advocacy, especially on social media. I have also understood so much about the practice itself. I found the Sahiyo guides and toolkits to be extremely informative and helpful. I believe that my involvement has had a deep impact on the way I communicate with people, and it has left me with hope for the future. I look forward to learning more!

4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

The resources that Sahiyo offers are incredibly helpful in starting a constructive conversation about female genital cutting with absolutely anyone. We must not forget that the strength of our feminist movement lies in a deep understanding of collective memories and struggles.

Volunteer Spotlight: Mariam Sabir

Mariam Sabir was born and raised in Dubai. After completing high school, she moved to the U.S. for further education. She is currently in her third year of medical school at American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine. Her passion is medicine and she believes in having a tangibly positive influence on people and being there for them in their most vulnerable state. 

1) When did you first get involved with Sahiyo?

This is actually a great story. I first heard about Sahiyo from a friend and was determined to attend the activist retreat. Alas, I had to work the very same weekend of the retreat and was terribly upset. I filled out a volunteer application in an attempt to get more involved. I am a medical student and was placed in Bakersfield, California, at the time for clinical rotations. Soon enough, I get an email from Mariya Taher, cofounder of Sahiyo, that she is from Bakersfield and was going to be visiting within the next two weeks. I was floored! What are the chances? We met and clicked right away. She has done so much for the cause and has inspired me to do the same. Having to miss the retreat only to meet with the cofounder of Sahiyo instead proved that joining Sahiyo was the right thing for me to do. God has a way of making things work.

2) What opportunities have you been involved with at Sahiyo?

So far, I have been involved with a FGM/C roundtable conference in MA, written a blogpost, contributed to our knowledge about FGM/C by reading and summarizing important articles about FGM/C, as well as contribute ideas and ways to improve and expand Sahiyo.

3) How has your involvement impacted your life?

Prior to being involved, I always felt this suppressed stress/urge to do something about FGM/C. Although, I have not contributed in a big way, being involved with Sahiyo and having open discussions with all the volunteers has put my conscience at ease. Sahiyo has several different ongoing projects in which you can use whatever skill set you have to contribute in any small way. It is the collective effort of everyone’s small contributions and their passion that has allowed Sahiyo to reach where it is and where it will be in the future. I am so happy to be a part of that growth!

4) What pieces of wisdom would you share with new volunteers or community members who are interested in supporting Sahiyo?

Spreading awareness is the most important thing for me. So my piece of wisdom would be to never shy away from discussing FGM/C with someone, whether it is your mom, aunt, cousin or friend. I understand it can be a daunting task, especially if the person you are trying to speak to is strong minded and conservative. But remember, it is not your job to change their mind or have them agree with your opinion. Your job is to simply make them question the tradition. Question the fact that maybe FGM/C, a tradition that has been followed for decades, needs to be reevaluated. Sahiyo has plenty resources you can use on how to approach the subject in the most polite, un-opinionated and non-judgemental manner.