“I have gone into sessions and taught them everything they know but I still wonder if I have said everything that needs to be said. And even if I have said it, do they understand it? It is the biggest challenge.”
Female genital mutilation – three words that change, shape and dictate the lives of many women around the world. In the United Kingdom alone, there have been 5,700 reported cases and more than 20,000 girls are still at risk. Worldwide, the number is much higher.
But the practice isn’t just a number or a statistic. It blatantly disregards human rights, and a woman’s choice over her own desires, her feelings and her wants by irreversibly damaging her, not only physically, but psychologically as well.
In July 2016, The Economist published an article stating: “Instead of trying to stamp FGM out entirely, governments should ban the worse forms, permit those that cause no long-lasting harm and try to persuade parents to choose the least nasty version, or none at all. However distasteful, it is better to have a symbolic nick from a trained health worker than to be butchered in a back room by a village elder.”
The article was condemned by campaigners against FGM, and organisations such as Integrate UK are now fighting back through awareness, education and integration. The IPF spoke to Bethel Tadesse, Lead Outreach Worker at Integrate UK, about how they are raising awareness in schools and engaging with communities.
“Young girls who are at risk and victims of female genital mutilation are concerned with people’s views on cliterodectomies,” Bethel explained. “Their frustration with the article pushed them to actually make something.
“So we came up with a music video, #MyClitoris, through which we tried raising awareness around the different types of mutilation and how it affects young girls and women.”
Helping teachers spot the signs
Although working on the music video was enlightening, fun and challenging, Bethel reiterated that FGM is a serious matter and, while the music video has reached many people, schools remain the most important places where awareness needs to be spread.
Alongside educating students, Integrate UK has also been providing safeguarding training for teachers, emphasising that they are the ones who can prevent FGM if they are able to recognise the early signs.
“It is very important for teachers to know what to look out for because they are on the frontline. They are the ones who can spot the behaviour, as it could happen to them when they are at school or during the school holidays. They would be the first ones to spot any signs or have an intuition of what is going on.”
Taking the message into the community
While schools are an important ground for raising awareness, Integrate UK also recognises the importance of getting communities to understand the hardships the girls face due to FGM – and why it is a banned practice. They believe that it is essential they are able to speak to the community in a way that isn’t disrespectful, while helping them understand why FGM is wrong.
“We are very close to the community and we ensure they trust us,” Bethel said. “Whether it is the music video we made or any other activity, for us it is important that we get the community involved.
“It is important to understand that when these people have travelled from Somalia or any other country, they bring back with them what they feel is their culture, their habits. So they do not see it is as a bad thing. For them, it is more of a precious thing to do. It is important to change this mindset.”
When talking to victims, many relay stories of how their mothers or grandmothers made them undergo the procedure, making it seem like the men of the family were either oblivious or they left it to the women in the house to take care of. However, Bethel is quick to point out that the problem “stems from men”.
“A lot of men won’t marry the girls unless they have had the procedure done to ensure her virginity. So it is important for the men to be involved in any kind of awareness drive and for them to say they don’t want it to happen.”
Challenges in combating FGM in the UK
In the UK, FGM is a punishable offence and anyone caught practicing it or coercing someone into it will be imprisoned. However, sometimes this very law poses a challenge to stopping the practice, with many girls not reporting because they fear their parents getting arrested.
“[The law] is one of the reasons why it is difficult to report and also why people won’t practice it within this country, but will wait till they go to their home countries before carrying out the procedure,” Bethel said.
“Children don’t want to report their parents and neither does the community think it is a bad thing. So it is important for the mindset to change and, for that, the leaders who preach it need to be held responsible.”
However, reporting FGM is not the only issue. Integrate UK stresses that understanding of FGM needs to be broadened – and that it is still FGM, not just when the entire labia is cut off – the most severe form of mutilation – but also when it occurs in the supposed “minor form” through the pricking of a nerve.
“Most people don’t know,” Bethel said. “I have heard of cases where people have had it as babies and they have no memory of it and later they find out they have had it.
“One of the most important factors is education, because in schools no one teaches them what a vagina should look like. Schools don’t teach us and that also results to under reporting. We don’t know what is normal.”
Although Bethel has attempted to reach out to as many girls as possible, her main challenge is making sure every girl knows what FGM is – and that communities discourage the practice.
“I have gone into sessions and taught them everything they know but I still wonder if I have said everything that needs to be said and even if I have said it, do they understand it? It is the biggest challenge.”
However, through the challenges, Bethel says that knowing one more person is aware and one more teacher is educated, is the most satisfying feeling as an outreach worker. For now, she will let Integrate UK’s music video do the talking:
“Try to change me, shame me, tame me, shape me everyday, but you can’t touch my dignity in anyway… Why do you think my vagina is made for you?”
This article was published in collaboration with our partners 1000women, a media site for minority ethnic women living in the UK.