Survivors speak: Women leading the movement to end FGM
This story was originally published on Medium.com/@UN_Women
200 million survivors raise their arms. Victorious voices break centuries of silence, and solidarity transforms pain into memory. This is the world dreamed of by the women leading the movement to end female genital mutilation (FGM). This is the world they’ll create.
Each year, millions of girls and women around the world are at risk of undergoing FGM, a harmful practice that intentionally alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. While the customs and traditions that perpetuate FGM vary from community to community, the procedure is generally carried out sometime between infancy and age 15, and it has serious socio-economic, physical, emotional, sexual and health consequences, including death.
Together with child marriage, which similarly affects hundreds of millions of girls worldwide, FGM is a practice that must end, and the charge must be led by survivors and individuals from impacted communities. Strengthened by their own experiences, invaluable insights and years of local wisdom, survivors and affected community members are uniquely positioned to unpack cultural nuances, re-shape narratives and find solutions to end FGM. These are the voices we must hear.
On International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, 6 February, here are four women, among many, many more, who are fighting for girlhoods free of FGM.
The first of her kind
Purity Soinato Oiyie stands tall with confidence. A traditional beaded Maasai headpiece drapes down from the crown of her head, and her bold, beaded necklace reads: “Stop FGM.” She’s a leader in her community and a women’s rights advocate, and her journey here has been against all odds.
“I was only 10 or 11 years old, when my father decided to circumcise me. I was to become the fifth wife to a 70-year-old man. I talked to my class teacher and she informed the police chief. Just two hours before the cutting ceremony, the police came and took me away,” she recalls. Oiyie was the first girl in her village to say no to FGM.
In the eight years that followed, Oiyie lived in a rescue center in Narok, Kenya far from all that was familiar. “The hardest thing for me was leaving home, leaving my family. I couldn’t sleep…I would wake up in the middle of the night and think, should I go back and get FGM?” she says.
For Oiyie and thousands of girls with similar stories, her escape impacted her family dynamics, and the consequences weighed heavy on her shoulders. “My father started beating my mother at home, blaming her for my escape. But my mother didn’t want me to go back and get circumcised. I stayed in the rescue centre and finished school.”
Finishing school was a crucial step in Oiyie’s journey because it allowed her to define her own path. Today, Oiyie works with an anti-FGM Board to help raise awareness in local villages about the harmful consequences of the traditional practice. She says, “It’s difficult to convince people to stop FGM because it’s a cultural practice. I go to the schools and talk to the girls and the teachers, I talk to the Maasai people in our language. I show them videos of FGM, make them aware of its effects, and tell them about the importance of education,” and adds that, “They are surprised to see an educated Maasai girl.”
While Oiyie is proud of the work she does to empower girls and parents to reject this harmful practice, she is also pushing for deeper transformation in her community. Knowing first-hand the complexity of the situation, she explains that, “...what we need is free education for girls. The Maasai are pastoral people, and many parents don’t have money to send their girls to school.”
Oiye dreams of building a free school for the girls of her village, and she stresses the importance of the inclusive of young married girls and mothers. “Being women, we deserve this right. It’s ours.”
Read Oiyie’s full interview here.
Jaha Dukureh is a renowned activist, UN Women Ambassador for Africa, a mother and a survivor of FGM. At 15 years old, she travelled alone from Gambia to New York City to marry a man she had never met. It was then that she realized she had undergone FGM as a baby.
“There are four types of FGM; I went through “Type 3”, which is the total removal of the clitoris, and the labia and the vagina are stitched together with only a small hole to urinate and menstruate. I realized that my marriage could not be consummated till I was deinfibrilated.”
When she became pregnant, Dukureh began anonymously speaking out about FGM. “I knew that I don’t want my daughter to go through that. I also knew that there are millions of girls out there that are just like my daughter and no one was speaking up for them. And if it wasn’t me, then who else?”
Propelled by her deeply personal relationship to the issue, Dukureh’s anonymous advocacy soon grew to world-shaking shouts. “I screamed out against FGM and child marriage, wrote blogs, threatened to call law enforcement if I could not leave my husband, established an NGO to combat these practices and petitioned the Obama administration to investigate the profile of FGM in the United States of America.”
Dukureh also contributed to the legislation to ban FGM in Gambia, her birth country, demonstrating that her roots are at the heart of all she does for the health and wellbeing of girls. Working within her community gives her insight and access to spaces and conversations where she can effectively push the needle forward. “Change cannot come from talking to the converted in conference rooms,” she says. “We must work with religious and traditional leaders, communities of men, boys and parents who think differently. We must listen to and understand their rationale and belief systems respectfully, and ensure that their privacy and dignity is maintained. We must avert judgementalism, use alternate religious interpretations and cite scientific evidence on adverse socio-economic and health impacts of FGM and child marriage.”
Recognizing the importance of a survivor-led movement to end FGM, Dukureh hopes to inspire others to speak out about their experiences. “We must support women and girls, especially survivors, to lead change and be role models. When a survivor speaks to her own people, it touches a chord.”
Safe in Serengeti
Elizabeth Thomas Mniko is seventeen years old. She takes extra classes at school, preparing for secondary school exams and serves as Head Girl at the safe house in Serengeti, Tanzania, where she fled to escape FGM.
“Many girls flee their homes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing,” says Apaisaria Kiwori, head matron of the house in Mugumu, Serengeti, in the Mara region of north-western Tanzania. The home has ten rooms, each with four bunk-beds and small cubbies to store personal items. It was built to accommodate 40 girls but has sheltered over 300 during the “high season”, when the Kurya tribe, the predominant indigenous tribe in Mara, performs FGM.
After the December rains on even numbered years, traditional leaders and village elders gather to consult traditional circumcisers called Ngaribas and their gods on the best date to do the cuts. Every high season, many girls die due to heavy loss of blood or infection, and those that survive the procedure carry the pain and trauma with them for a lifetime.
Fearing for their lives, girls as young as seven escape to the safe house, and Mniko is there to serve as a role model. Having been through it herself, Mniko recognizes the immense strength each girl must have to leave home. “It takes great courage to leave your entire world behind,” she says. “Some of the younger girls here didn’t even know that it would be the last time they see their friends and families. They left thinking they could go back. But the families have rejected them.”
It’s these tragic narratives that fuel Mniko’s drive—why she takes extra classes, studies diligently and inspires everyone around her. “I want to become a lawyer,” she says from the top bunk bed of her room, “and defend the rights of all survivors of gender-based violence.”
You can do it, Mniko. We are cheering for you.
Read the full story about the Safe House and the groundbreaking decisions by local leaders in the Mara region to prohibit FGM.
Change: one girl at a time.
As a social worker and rural woman leader in Upper Egypt, Magda Ahmed goes to work each day for the rights and wellbeing of girls and women. She fights for their access to education, their right to give full consent before marriage and their entitlement to a life free of FGM and other harmful practices.
Growing up, Ahmed loved learning. After graduating high school, she was eager to continue her studies but wasn’t allowed to make the decision for herself. “It is difficult for a girl to continue her education in Upper Egypt,” Ahmed says. “I finished my [high school] diploma but could not take my education any further as my parents decided that a diploma was enough. My brothers also did not support the idea of educating the girls of the family,” she explains. Although she pushed back, her family held firm, and she married at age 18.
“When I got married I wanted to devote my energy to work but my husband kept saying that my house and children are my job,” recalls Ahmed. Eventually, with the support of her mother-in-law, she began working in a nursery, and several years later, after rigorous studying and examinations, Ahmed was hired by the Ministry of Social Solidarity as a social worker.
Her position involves traveling from home to home, meeting with families, and making note of their needs and concerns. Eventually, the women started trusting her and shared their personal experience of domestic violence, child marriage and FGM. As part of her job training, Ahmed received training on how to raise awareness on the negative consequences of child marriage and FGM, and because she was a young mother herself, she’s able to deeply engage with the women and families. “My experiences of marrying young helped me to enlighten the women I visited about the issues of early marriage.”
Sharing one of her proudest achievements, Ahmed says that she was able to change a mother’s mind about conducting FGM on her daughter. “She left me with a promise that no one will ever convince her to harm her girl in such a manner. I now recognize that my role as a rural woman leader is crucial in the community,” she says with pride.
For more on Ahmed’s inspiring work, read her full story.