Understanding the effect of COVID-19 on gender-based violence in Nigeria

By Hunter Kessous

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hidden Scars and Magool have teamed up to offer biweekly webinars that amplify the voices of the grassroots organizations working to protect girls and women at this time. On June 9th, the third installment of the Africa Led Movement series addressed the effect of the pandemic on gender-based violence (GBV) in Nigeria, including female genital cutting (FGC).

Co-hosts Bethel Tadesse of Hidden Scars and Leyla Hussein of Magool led with discussion questions. The three speakers were overflowing with passion and knowledge. It seemed to me they often found it difficult to focus their response on the specific question they were asked, as there was clearly an overwhelming amount of information they wanted to share. The fervent speakers included Clare Henshaw, Girls Inspired Africa and i-Safe Consulting; Hassana Umoru Maina, The ABCs of Sexual Violence Campaign; and Kolawole Olatosimi, Child and Youth Protection Foundation

One thing I learned in this webinar is that only in the West is FGC discussed as a separate issue from gender-based violence (GBV). For example, when I hear people talking about GBV, I would not assume they are including FGC in that definition. This might be because Americans and Europeans may be less familiar with FGC. Halfway through the webinar, I was confused why FGC had not been discussed yet. It was explained to me that they were including FGC in their definition of GBV. Other Americans and Europeans in the audience shared my “aha” moment. FGC is a form of gender-based violence, and I think Westerners should shift our viewpoint to that of the advocates in this webinar. 

Having attended a few webinars since the start of the pandemic, I have learned that COVID-19 has led to an increase in GBV. However, activists Hassana and Clare claim GBV has not increased; it is just being noticed more now that women and girls are stuck at home. Hassana says rape and violence against girls has been a pandemic for much longer than COVID-19. Kolawole noted that safe spaces have been taken from girls as a result of schools being closed in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

A recurring theme throughout the interviews that all speakers addressed was the culture of silence that perpetuates GBV. Clare says that in order to end this culture, it is important that all of the NGOs in Nigeria work together. Apparently, there is a lack of coordination, and all organizations must “speak the same language with the same voice” in order to make change. Hassana posited making sexual violence part of the mainstream discussion so that the conversation is ongoing, as opposed to only mentioned when something bad happens. Another action item is promoting sexual education in all Nigerian schools. Finally, Kolowole explained that Nigeria has laws against GBV, but these laws need to be domesticated. At the current moment, these laws are not being enforced. 

The full recording of this webinar can be found here.

How COVID-19 impacts programs devoted to ending gender-based violence, including female genital cutting

By Hunter Kessous

The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, so it is unsurprising that gender-based violence (GBV), including female genital cutting (FGC), has also been affected. Hidden Scars and Magool came together to co-host the Africa Led Movement Webinar series. In May, I had the pleasure of attending the second part of the series which addressed GBV during the current pandemic. 

Speakers included Bethel Tadesse, Hidden Scars; Leyla Hussein, Magool; Wanjiru Wahome, Samburu Girls Foundation; Christine Alfons, Safe Engage Foundation; and Domtila Chesang, I Am Responsible Foundation (I Rep Foundation)

Three panelists, Wahome, Alfons and Chesang, discussed the impact of COVID-19 on their work. Wahome and Chesang have both noticed an increase in GBV, specifically FGC, rape, and domestic violence. They add that the Kenyan government has forcibly closed all safe houses, sending thousands of girls back to their homes. Coupled with the closure of schools and the restriction of movement, more girls and women are stuck in places where they are not safe or comfortable. Additionally, it seems as if GBV may be the least of the government’s priorities in Kenya, as all resources and focus are currently being devoted to the pandemic. Alfons noted that in her region of Kenya, FGC only occurs every two years. Therefore, FGC is not rising in cases at the moment, but child marriage has increased significantly. 

The panelists were asked how their organizations have responded to the rise in violence prompted by the pandemic. All three are using the radio as a tool to prevent FGC by interviewing healthcare professionals and community leaders on air and playing jingles to remind listeners not to cut their girls. Upon hearing the devastating news of the closed rescue houses, I was relieved to hear that Wahome and Chesang have been going door-to-door to check on the girls they had to send back home. Alfons has been working to get girls sanitary products. Additionally, Alfons’ volunteers are making masks and supplying them to at-risk girls and women. 

In a vulnerable moment, they spoke with honesty about how the pandemic has personally impacted them. They shared the sentiment that their work has been frustrating and emotionally draining. I’m certain many advocactes would agree when Chesang stated this is not a job; it is personal, and you take it with you wherever you go. Alfons relies on other activists to stay sane. The panelists were asked what gives them hope to continue, and I found Wahome’s answer to be particularly poignant. She says when a girl is rescued, at the time she is viewed as a wife, but within a few months she transforms back into a child. 

Finally, the panelists shared what their asks would be if they could ask anything at all of the viewers. Chesang wishes for a car, or even just fuel, to allow her to visit at-risk girls and women more easily and more often. Wahome’s organization is in need of food to take the girls, as the virus has left many families without any income. Alfonso asks for sanitary pads, food, and assistance in building a website to better spread their message and work. If any readers can offer assistance, please visit their websites (linked above) or reach out to Bethel Tadesse for contact information. 

The webinar ended with an important call to action: keep amplifying the voices of the grassroots organizations working to end FGC and GBV. For more information on how the virus is impacting programs devoted to ending FGC and GBV, read here.

Why human rights education, including FGC, is crucial for American classrooms

By Hunter Kessous

Throughout high school, whenever I would tell people about my future goals to help survivors of female genital cutting (FGC), nine times out of ten the response would be, “What is FGC?” This is a question I never minded. As a human rights advocate, I’ve always taken the opportunity to educate my friends about this topic.

I never expected that one day my peers at university would claim my desire to end the practice of FGC was neocolonialist, imperialist and simply wrong. I was shocked. I had read all about the harm that FGC causes to girls and women globally. I know, of course, that communities that practice FGC are protective of their tradition. However, I was completely unprepared to be met with hostility by my classmates. 

Soon, I noticed a trend: all of the students who were opposed to ending FGC were in the anthropology department. This left me even more puzzled—my experience with anthropology had been positive. We learned that culture is meant to grow and change over time. We learned about cultural relativism: the importance of viewing cultural practices through the lens of the culture itself. All of these things aligned with my view of FGC and approach toward abandonment. FGC is a cultural practice, but that doesn’t mean it can and should not change. Understanding the way communities that practice FGC view and justify their tradition is key to effectively encouraging abandonment of FGC. Why, then, do some anthropology students believe there should be no interventions to end FGC?

Finally, I got answers. My global health professor led a discussion about FGC in class, which quickly turned into a ferocious debate between myself and three other students. Nearly all of what they said was untrue: FGC is a religious practice; medicalization makes FGC safe; and FGC is an African practice so we should not condemn it. 

FGC is often justified with religion, but it is not technically a religious practice. It pre-dates Islam and Christianity. Medicalization does not remove many of the physical and psychological dangers of FGC. It is a global practice-–happening even within the U.S.–that we should strive toward ending by allowing those from the communities that practice FGC to lead the initiative. These simple corrections were not well-received during the debate, potentially because the anthropology professors may have refused to take a stance on FGC as a human rights violation .. Herein lies the danger: misconceptions about FGC become all the more harmful when they are propagated by trusted sources. 

My experience showed me that the accuracy of information about FGC being taught in college classrooms desperately needs to be improved. Moreover, there is a general need for increased education about FGC in American classrooms. 

Public policy in England, as well as the state of Virginia (thanks to Angela Peabody of Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation), mandate that the harms, laws, and resources surrounding FGC be taught in sexual education courses for middle and high school students. These laws are important because we are raising the next generation of advocates. By teaching about FGC in schools accurately, we are empowering young people to be knowledgeable of and speak out against a human rights violation. This can and should be done through mandating FGC education in sex education classes and improving the accuracy of it being taught in university courses. 

To learn more about FGC, common misconceptions, and the importance of nationwide classroom education as a tool for FGC prevention, join Sahiyo for an educational webinar on July 30th at 1pm EST! Follow this link to learn more and register. 

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.

Utilizing Participatory Storytelling to Educate – A session at APHA 2019

1On 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.

Launching Global Voices to End FGM/C – An Online Digital Storytelling Workshop

On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories. 

During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists. 

The storytellers come from a variety of countries including:  Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop. 

All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.

WeSpeakOut spearheads two-day workshop on ending FGC in India

In a unique event bringing together activists working to end Female Genital Cutting and various stakeholders from civil society organisations, WeSpeakOut organised a two-day symposium at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai on August 1 and 2. The symposium, titled “Strategy-building Workshop on FGM/C in India”, was organised in partnership with TISS, Nari Samata Manch and Sahiyo.

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More than 40 activists, survivors, and researchers participated in the workshop, including women and men from various sub-sects of the Bohra community from different parts of India, feminists, academicians, and heads of several women’s rights and human rights organisations in the country. There were also international participants from Equality Now, a US-based organisation working to end FGC globally and Tasaru Ntomonok Initiative, an NGO working to end FGC in Kenya.
Over two days, the workshop nurtured stimulating and productive discussions on various aspects of FGC and discussed strategies to advocate against the practice from the perspectives of law, health, community engagement and working with the youth and with men. The workshop was also an opportunity for activists from the community and those from outside the community to learn from each other.