Female Genital Mutilation: Advancing Awareness and Advocating for Global Action
It’s been a month since The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was held at the New York United Nations Headquarters from March 11-23th. Commission on the Status of Women was founded in June 1946 and “The principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women”. The Commission is made up of government representatives who come together to negotiate a document made up of recommended actions and specific language regarding the year’s theme. The document is then proposed from the Commission to the General Assembly as a resolution for them to vote on and adopt. In the beginning the Commission played an instrumental role in changing the use of the word “man” as the all-inclusive word to refer to “people” in government documents. Over the years the Commission has worked tirelessly in coordinating and promoting the reality that woman’s issues are cross-cutting and part of mainstream issues, not separate concerns. CSW invites non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), such as the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, to participate in CSW as partners and host parallel events. CSW 62’s theme this year was the challenges and opportunities in achieving gender equality and the empowerment of rural women and girls; with a review theme focused on women’s participation in and access to the media, information and communications technologies, and their impact on uses as an instrument for advancement and empowerment of women. Each year the UU UNO participates by hosting a parallel event and this year was no exception.
Taking this year’s theme of girls and women living in rural areas, we knew we wanted to work with the organization, Sanctuary for Families. They had done an amazing presentation on the work they do in the New York City area with survivors of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and those at risk of FGM. This area of focus fits in with the UU-UNO program areas and is in line with the advocacy work we do for women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, as the practice of FGM is an irreversible act of violence against women and girls. We reached out to the presenter, Mariama Diallo who is the Project Director of the African Initiatives at Sanctuary for Families who was excited to work with us in bringing together a parallel event for CSW. With the help of Ms. Diallo we were able to put together a dynamic panel with voices from various organizations and viewpoints regarding the issues surrounding the practice of FGM establishing how it can affect people globally. As we enlisted various speakers and panelists, the excitement and anticipation grew for our event and the discussions that would come from it.
The event kicked off at 2:30 on March 16th to a packed room with more people than chairs. As each panelist spoke they shed new information on the practices of FGM through their experiences and the work they were doing to end the practice.
The panel started off with a quick synopsis on what FGM is and what work is being done here in New York to provide both support to those who’ve experienced the practice, and preventative services for those traveling to areas where it is practiced. The practice of FGM has no basis in religion but instead is a cultural practice, and as people move and migrate, they take their culture with them. This creates a serious issue regarding ‘vacation cutting’, where girls are sent to an area that practices FGM to have the procedure done.
We then heard from various advocates of ending FGM, some of whom were survivors and who spoke to what it was like being immersed in a culture where this practice was the norm and socially acceptable and enforced. One panelist shared her story about her personal journey starting a non-profit and having experienced FGM. She ended by engaging the audience to sing along with her as she took back a ritual song that is usually sung by the girls who have just undergone FGM. It was an inspiring moment of actively engaging in taking back one’s story. Another panelist shared a clip of her short film that was in the Tribeca Film Festival, depicting her family’s story surrounding FGM amongst the generations. We also heard from the State Department of the United States as to what Homeland Security is doing at JFK Airport. They are actively enforcing an awareness campaign around FGM and talking with those who are at high risk for undergoing FGM. The JFK TSA is talking to passengers who are traveling to countries that where FGM is known to be practiced and doing so to anyone who could possibly be at risk, mostly young women and girls.
With the array of panelists, we were able to provide different examples of how people are actively getting involved with ending FGM and how others can get involved. Some of the questions that arose were around how to engage to end the practice of cutting but keeping the celebration and ritual of honoring a girl. There are a lot of layers to it, and unfortunately most of those that perform the cutting claim to do it for economic purpose, not only for cultural reasons. There are limited ways of economic advancement, which can lead those who conduct the practice in the decision to continue the practice for compensation or try to earn pay in another way. In addressing FGM the factors of religion and the economic impacts of changing the culture and practice need to be considered in the practical steps to ending FGM practices.
It was an honor for me to work with these panelists and to help bring awareness and further the discussion in how we can end the practice of FGM and empower the women who have endured the practice. We each write our own story and create our own perspectives, these women left me and I’m sure all who attended inspired and ready to take action!
Mariama Diallo is the Project Director of the African Initiative working at Sanctuary for Families. Her primary role at Sanctuary for Families is to provide trauma-informed individual and group therapy to survivors of domestic violence, sexual violence, civil wars/genocide, and other types of gender violence including female genital mutilation (FGM), forced marriage. Develop curriculums and other training materials, conduct community outreach/education on the issues of FGM, forced marriage, and domestic violence through professional trainings to doctors, nurses, social workers, and school teachers. Provide expert knowledge and testify in courts in the area of FGM, forced marriage, and domestic violence. Facilitate a mentors group training for African girls' survivors or at risk of experiencing gender violence. Ms. Diallo is the Chair of the Coalition for the Empowerment of African Women and Girls; funder of the New York Coalition to end FGM. Ms. Diallo is an Adjunct Professor at the Metropolitan College of New York and a guest lecturer at Columbia University. Ms. Diallo holds a Masters in Social Work from Columbia University and a post graduate degree in Conflict Resolution from The Catholic University of Paris, France.
Fatoumata is currently a trained nurse at a local hospital. She has been working and improving her craft in the medical field for years. She is an amazing young lady who was a victim of Female Genital Mutilation at a very young age. Being raised and bred in Guinea, Fatoumata never saw FGM as a plaguing issue to women. It was when she came to America in her early twenties and had her two children that she began to feel the negative effects of Female Genital Mutilation. The domestic violence that she has experience in her first marriage has motivated her to speak out against violence against women She is now an activist who has made it her job to speak out against the brutal and inhumane ways of Female Genital Mutilation. Fatoumata has overcome all obstacles and is a prime example of not allowing bad experiences to overcome the good.
Aissata M. B. Camara
Aissata M. B. Camara is the co-Founder of There Is No Limit Foundation (TINLF), an international nonprofit organization that empowers individuals, especially women and girls. TINLF works in the areas of entrepreneurship, education, WASH, maternal and child health, and the eradication of harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM). Under her guidance, TINLF’s Break The Silence Campaign to end FGM reached over 10 million people through targeted media and social media campaigns. TINLF also trained more than 6,000 community members in Guinea and the United States on the dangers of FGM. Aissata is featured in Face of Defiance exhibit which has been shown worldwide. She also was featured in The Guardian’s United States campaign to end female genital cutting (FGM/C). PBS NewsHour interviewed her in their segment about vacation cutting. She has on numerous occasions represented the voice of African women and youth at the United Nations high-level conferences on harmful practices. Aissata graduated from Bernard M. Baruch College (CUNY) with a B.A. in International Relations and Social Policy and went on to earn an MPA in International Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy at the New York University (NYU) Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Ashishi – Aicha Cherif is a Filmmaker, high school student and women’s rights activist. Her works will be featured in the Tribeca Film Festival. She has interviewed Reese Witherspoon, Colin Kapernick, Elaine Welteroth and many more. Aicha is working on an interactive documentary project that will spread awareness on FGM and gender based violence all around the world.
Michelle Panella is a Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations leading female genital mutilation (FGM) initiative at JFK International Airport, aimed to identify and protect girls at risk while spreading awareness to the general public.