Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Voltaire... 21 Century style

One of the many interesting things about volunteering on the frontline with the team at FORWARD is when we have to deal with email queries. I've posted before about how diverse these can be - everything from women seeking help, boyfriends talking about their girlfriends, women from as far afield as Australia asking about what to do....

And statements like this one:

"It is an absolute disgrace your organisation encourages
illegal immigration. Many women come to this country illegally, work as
prostitutes and claim the freedom to remain here due to being
"trafficked". This is simply illegal immigration and migration groups
across the country aim to put an end to your very sexist activities. Men
have been genitally mutilated for thousands of years. Why not support an
end to this practice. It is outrageous your organisation has been
registered as a charity. We will put an end to your women-only pursuits."

My response is here:

Dear Matthew

Thank you for taking the time to write. You've clearly engaged with some of the tricky issues around the complexities of immigration and our work.

We do believe in bodily integrity for all, but in this instance, feel that campaigning against male circumcision is best left to those organisations set up to cope with exactly that. You may want to look at some of their websites.

Part of the reason that so many people want to be in the UK is because of its record of human rights, free speech and tolerance, therefore we're happy to have had this dialogue with you as we believe passionately in these things.

As Voltaire famously said: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend ... your right to say it."

Perhaps my response was slightly misguided. It certainly doesn't allow me to vent my spleen as much as I'd like. And those among you who know their Voltaire will notice that I deliberately excluded the words "I'll defend to the death your right to say it" - no point in tempting fate!

I wonder if any of the organisations set up for male circumcision ever come across this sort of aggression? That is a genuine question - perhaps because so many discussions in the Twittersphere seem to equate female and male GM/C - I wondered if all the issues it raises are transferable?

Anyway - if anyone has any other ideas for responses, do please let me know - sadly this is a mildly aggressive email, compared with some that we receive....interestingly, Matthew did include his email address and his London (Chiswick?) based phone number. I've not been bold enough to call him up though!

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Mrs Goundo's Daughter

A screening last night, of the critically acclaimed film of "Mrs Goundo's Daughter" which seemed to outline so many of the current issues facing women. Some of the skill of the film was to get across the complexity of the forces around this issue - religion, misinformation, cultural prominence, patriarchal influence, the role of women in owning it themselves as a tradition.

Even more interesting was the juxtaposition of the life of Mrs Goundo, who lives in Dallas, Texas and the life she left behind her, in rural Mali.

A short post today, as I muse on whether to publish this photograph or not?

I was left after the screening last night, wondering if we had captured people's hearts, attention, minds - and how in fact to do that? Or whether they were simply shocked and felt that this is too big an issue to deal with? Too far away? Perhaps.

Oh - publish and be damned. If girls have to go through it, the least we can do is pay witness....

Photo: Robert Skinner

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Friday, 13 November 2009

And on a lighter note.....


Dressing up as a clitoris to help www.clitoriaid.org - an organisation that offers surgery to help rebuild the clitoris. Apparently this operation is more successful if the girl is cut later in life and if the severing of the clitoris is not too deep....

Incidentally, there is a discussion at the moment, following on from the BBCs coverage of warnings about labioplasty here in the UK. The general gist on twitter (which I'm losing faith with) is that labioplasty is the western form of FGM.

There is a simple reason why they're not comparable: choice. If women choose any type of surgery, that is their prerogative - they may be subliminally manipulated by the cultural hegemony in place, but at the end of the day, they undergo surgery and the risks to improve their own body image. As far as I can see it, labioplasty does not contravene a single Universal Human Right.

FGM on the other hand.... I'm not sure I even need to go any further. We can start with the age of the girl (anywhere from 9 days to beyond puberty), the absolute lack of choice, the horrific health impacts, the psychological impacts, the fact that it is not an anesthetized (sp?) operation.

In terms of human rights, FGM certainly contravenes the right to life and the right not to be tortured or treated in an inhuman or degrading way. It spans health rights, child rights and human rights.

So in short, a comparator of the two is not helpful - in my opinion, it actually undermines the severity of the issues that FGM raises.

Friday, 6 November 2009

FGM as a weapon of conflict

It's exactly a year since I returned from Lalibela to Addis. Which again, makes me think of my talisman photograph of the two smiling girls, who hijacked us, as we wound our way through the small paths and stumbled upon churches, the infamous rock hewn Lalibela churches.

Who would have thought my journey would have brought me here one year later?

I'm building up to something. Two things in fact. And clearly I think that by beating around the bush and meandering in memories, that it will save me from having to tell you. See, even now, my innate sense is to protect, rather than to reveal.

OK - you know I blogged about a photograph? Here it is:

I won't go over thoughts, feelings, perceptions - as I did that in an earlier post. All I can do is leave it out there - let it speak for itself.

The second issue - if it's possible, is almost harder. I sat at FORWARD's AGM last week and talked with one of the trustees, who is Kenyan. We discussed the politics of Kenya, the uncertainty of Kenya.

She leaned over to me and said, conspiratorially (we all at some points, whisper about FGM - although sometimes, we speak it loud and clear) "one of the things that's happening in Kenya..." (deep breath, glance around the room, back at me, finding my eyes) "women are being forced to go through FGM"

A few moments for it to be understood, then I see what she's saying. "It's bad enough that rape and violence is so prevalent - but if a woman is raped and they see she has a clitoris, they cut it out."

FGM as a weapon of conflict. Of course it is. How stupid of me not to have seen it before - or even, not to have somehow known it.

And so this journey unfolds, continues.

Not much left to say today.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Guest blog spot on Unltd's blog here......


What income stream attaches itself to behavioural change?

Posted on November 4, 2009, 11:55 am

I've watched you social entrepreneurs from afar. A bit like hanging out at the school gates, not quite part of the group, seeing you play in the playground, wondering if I can be your friend.

The reality is, probably no. Or perhaps yes. Perhaps once you've read this blog post, you could feed me inspiration, thought-provoking ideas?

See, my passion is a difficult thing. My passion is to inspire behavioural change in one of the most complex, culturally sensitive, difficult areas.

Photo: Nick Cornwall

I travelled to Ethiopia last year, as a volunteer with VSO. I did all my reading and preparation. But really, nothing prepared me for female genital mutilation. I'm not sure anything can. In some ways, I feel I was lucky, in that my introduction to it was quite pure - there I was in Ethiopia, living a volunteer's life, interacting with Ethiopian people. How much better than casually coming across a book - perhaps it would not have mattered to me, if all I had done was read yet another news report about an atrocity happening in a far away land.

As it was, I met women, I met girls, much like these, in one of the most sacred places I'd ever been, Lalibela in the north of Ethiopia.

The knowledge that these girls are likely to have their clitorises and labia cut out is almost unbearable. Cut out because these parts offend. It is a tradition now so steeped in history that it predates both Christianity and Islam. It is a tradition that is so powerfully culturally embedded that mothers and grandmothers do it to their own daughters. The patriarchal appropriation is complete - women believe by doing this that they are freeing their girls from the ugliness of genitals that if left, would grow down to their knees. The smell would be horrific. The irony is of course, that so many girls who are cut go through lifelong issues of repeated infections and odours.

More and perhaps most importantly, by going through this ritual, their daughters are cleansed for marriage. An uncut woman will remain unmarried. And in Ethiopia, that means she will remain status-less. It is literally inconceivable to be unmarried.

So what is at the root of FGM? Clearly, female control. But it is wider than this. It's done to ensure first virginity, then chastity. This is because its most extreme form, infibulation, means that the wound is also sewn up. A hard plug of scar tissue forms - literally the body's own chastity belt. This is then cut open, on a girl's wedding night (because child marriage is still the norm) and also at every subsequent birth - cut open, sewed back up again.

There are other reasons. Even though it predates religion, many people believe that it is part of Islamic culture. Few imans preach against it. Most in fact believe it is the same status as male circumcision, which is promoted in the Qu'ran. Christiantiy too in Africa remains pretty silent about it.

So enough of the FGM lesson. Why am I standing at the school gates, nose pressed, looking in?

Because a social enterprise, as far as I can work out, needs an income stream. What income stream to help these girls? What income stream attaches itself to behavioural change? Perhaps training - but this issue needs community driven, embedded work. On a massive scale. It needs advocates within communities, not do-gooders from across the seas telling others how to live their lives.

All I can think of is a straightforward model of fundarising here to channel to those over there. The intervention? Community based education. Community health workers who can tell of the links between girls' problems and FGM. Wholescale community shifts towards allowing girls who are not cut to be married (very achievably - this is the UNICEF/Innocenti approach, predicated on game theory). Giving circumcisers economic alternatives to support their livelihoods. Asking National Governments to enforce their own laws that ban FGM (in 24 of the 28 practising countries) and asking international players to really step up to the plate and start using their influence.

So, that's an introduction to the vagaries of FGM.

I hold those little girls in my mind though, as I go through trying to make sense of all this. I've given up full time work to both volunteer on this but also to somehow make some practicable change. I find the NGO world difficult to penetrate, obscure and behemoth like. The private sector has little interest, for obvious reasons. Little girls in Africa? The funding world finds little to do, concentrating on infectious diseases like malaria.

I found myself on the plinth on day 4. It was a remarkable humbling experience to stand in orange, pull on 40 different t-shirts all with different countries and then cut the petals of a red rose and fling them into the air, with the words: "This is for the three million girls around the world, who will be cut this year." The crowd stayed with me. Afterwards, people came up to me, put their arms around me. One man in a disabled buggy came over and simply said, "I didn't know. I just didn't know - thank you." That seemed to say it all.

Like what Julia has to say? Completely disagree? Sign Up (http://unltdworld.com/pages/signup.php)to UnLtdWorld to comment on this blog...

Friday, 23 October 2009

Quick response to Avaaz on FGM - posted on Facebook

For up to date information, research and news on FGM, please visit www.forwarduk.org.uk - and if you care about this issue, please consider getting involved in some form.

Personally, I would love Avaaz to campaign on this issue because there needs to be much more awareness about it, and it is only through education and advocacy that we will begin to get a real shift in this complex practice. If Avaaz's followers chose to make this an issue, then it could be taken much more seriously around the world.

That's the power of the network today - I'm a fan and supporter of Avaaz - and I think there's an interesting debate about whether they respond to their members issues or set their own agenda.... Read More

Ricken is right to an extent, in the original quote - FGM currently would come way down people's priority lists. It's just too taboo and difficult to touch.

However, if Avaaz chose to campaign on FGM, the awareness raised would be remarkable - and then this issue might get the level of funding needed (which, let's face it comes from the West) to make an impact at any serious level. Meanwhile, those 3 million girls a year keep on getting cut.

A multi-level approach is needed - at a community level to explain the health impacts, at a national level to ensure that countries see this as illegal and also adopt enforcement, at a Pan-African level (altho it happens in Indonesia, and other parts of the world too) and at an international/global level to ensure that agencies and others involved have a coherent, funded plan to really meet the UN stated aim of "eradicating FGM within this generation."

At the moment we are woefully far from this.

The other main issue is that this practice predates both Christianity and Islam - it is a question of female control. It ensures women's chastity and fidelity in one brutal stroke. Projects that work towards female empowerment do make a different in the debate. UNICEF research also shows that when whole villages adopt a shift away from FGM (meaning no one woman is penalised by not being allowed to marry if she is uncut) then change really can happen.

This practice is a human rights violation, a child rights violation and it denies girls their own opportunity to reach their potential.

We should all do anything we can to help shift this debate. Please!

Here is Avaaz's orignial response:

Thanks to all for comments on female genital mutilation - there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about Avaaz's position.

Avaaz is a member-driven organization - we use polls of our membership to set our priorities and decide our course. There are so many vital issues in the world today, and FGM is certainly one of them, but it's just impossible to campaign on all of them. Unlike traditional NGOs where staff, board and funders decide priorities, our members make the difficult and sometimes painful decisions about which campaigns our community focuses on. It's really important to our democratic model of campaigning that it's our membership as a whole, and not any small group of members or staff, that decides what we work on.

Our community is passionate about human rights and women's rights. Almost half of our campaigns have been human rights-related campaigns, including for example the prevention of mass rape in the Congo and accountability for rape and genocide in Sudan. We've also focused heavily on human rights in countries like Zimbabwe, Tibet and Burma. But so far, Avaaz members have not chosen FGM as one of our most important priorities.

We wish the WHOA FGM campaign all the best in educating people about this serious issue, and hope we can join the cause when Avaaz members choose to. We're grateful to everyone who has posted civil and respectful comments, but we're very concerned that one of your members is sending abusive and threatening messages to Avaaz staff on personal accounts - please let's have a mature and respectful discussion and not threaten and demonize people whose job it is to serve the Avaaz community by working hard on many good causes.

The Avaaz Team

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Matrix and FGM....

I've recently read an FGM publication written by Nahid Toubia "A Global Call to Action."

The thing that stopped me in my steps though was a photograph of an infibulated seven year old Sudanese girl. I wish I could reproduce it here. I guess words will have to do.

All you see is her brown legs apart, lower down, the black star of her anus. Above this, a wider hole - almost like a belly button - some sort of orifice, puckered. Above that - nothing. Absolutely nothing - smooth smooth skin. Clearly she is too young to have pubic hair, but the pristine smoothness of this skin apalls and amazes me.

I mused with my friend Ben about it. He instantly hit on something: "it sounds like the body of an android" - that seemed to say it. De-sexed. Everything internal is intact (unless it is ravished by infection and succumbs to all of the health stresses that happen as a result of FGM) women are able to still have sex, still give birth, but everything in this area is now controlled by others.

My other analogy is a Barbie doll. And the smoothness of the plastic reminds me of the skin with no marks. Perhaps you may connect with a more modern analogy, which Julian told me of - Neo in the Matrix. The point where his mouth disappears and all that is left is the bold line of his face, mouthless. This is the same, but vulva-less.

The photograph haunts me. Worse, I go around showing it to everyone. I am lucky in my friends - they don't shy away - even Brett, the hairdresser in Smithfield, wants to know more, doesn't baulk from talking.

I realise I now might have to find a way of reproducing the photo.... will do my best.

I wanted to quote directly from her report:

"The thinking of an African woman who believes "FGM is the fashionable thing to do to become a real woman" is not so different from that of an American woman who has breast implants to appear more feminine. Presented below are some of the reasons given for FGM:

Female genitals are unhygienic and need to be cleaned
Female genitals are ugly and will grow to become unwieldy if they are not cut back
FGM is a fashionable thing to do to become a real woman

FGM is an intiation into womanhood and into the tribe
The noncircumcised cannot be married
FGM enhances the husband's sexual pleasure
FGM makes vaginal intercourse more desirable than clitoral stimulation

FGM improves fertility and prevents maternal and infant mortality

God sanctifies FGM

FGM safeguards virginity
FGM cures "sexual deviance" ie frigidity, lesbianism, sexual arousal.

None of the underlying messages and language used to justify FGM is unique to Africa. These messages reflect a universal language used to perpetuate women's second-class status and a re reminiscent of reasons given for slavery, colonialism and racism."

The whole report is well-written and I glean facts from it that I haven't done elsewhere - in particular, issues around the cutting and recutting around childbirth and "access" for marriage. It also talks about the recognition that whilst infibulation is seen as the pratice that has most impact health wise, this can leave clitoridectomies seeming almost acceptable. In fact, some communities "downgrade" to removing the clitoris.

This is a discussion I had with friends recently - one said that she felt that if the practice could be done more hygienically, by medical professionals, that this would make it much safer.

To me, this is anathema and indeed, Toubia points out that this is one of the gravest issues - if the practice is put into the hands of the medical profession and seen as helpful, then all of us advocates will be set back by at least 30 years. It will have been appropriated by the system, and there it will stay - wresting back control of women's bodies will be even harder than now.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

UN Women's Agency approved!

Remarkable scenes!

In spite of doom laden scenarios, the UN General Assembly voted unanimously yesterday to go ahead with the UN Women's Agency.....

Now the real work begins.....

Sunday, 13 September 2009

The UN should not be beyond women's grasp....

And yet, to so many of us, it is.

The UN is often seen as a huge lumbering beast, that only looks to its own self-fulfilling concerns. Yet most recently, talk of reform has been on the table. Reform of the UN's funding and its structure.

Part of this reform has been a discussion about setting up a dedicated UN Women's Agency, which could affect the lives of women the world over. Much has been done. Many countries have agreed the need for it. A resolution has been put forward to the UN General Assembly. However, it is mired in the horse-trading and geo-political discussions that accompany the signing of any resolution. It is in danger of not being signed at all (see Mark Tran's article here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/sep/11/ratification-un-women-agency-threatened).

The resolution must be passed by today, 14th September, 2009. Who knows what will happen. If it is passed, we are on our way to creating an autonomous, fully funded, dedicated agency for women, that has vowed to work in partnership with CSOs on the ground and have the proper level of leadership needed for this important body.

It is most desperately needed.

A quick glance at UN statistics (courtesy of GEAR) show that the women's agencies spend is a terribly low $221m - and this against a global UN spend in 2008 of $27bn. This means that fewer than 1% is spent on gender equality within the UN.

Rather than give a whole level of detail about the background, you can access the campaign here: http://www.un-gear.eu/home.shtml. The home page has some sobering statistics:
  • Every minute of every day, a woman dies in childbirth - a statistic that hasn't improved in two decades
  • 70% of the world's poor and 67% of the world's illiterate are women
  • In 141 countries, marital rape remains a legal activity
  • Only 9% of HIV+ women in the developing world have access to treatment that blocks passing their HIV onto newborn
And yet still, we have no dedicated body in the UN that is responsible for women, or responsible for delivering the Millennium Development Goals that affect half of our population.

As someone on the ground, simply campaigning for a better life for women, I'm still wholeheartedly shocked at how our global hegemonies spout the rhetoric, yet do so little in practice. This is a prime example.

For those who argue that we will simply be creating a whole new UN instrument in the form of its predecessors, I would argue that in order to beat the system, sometimes you need to infiltrate from within and play with the same orchestra....

Let's all hope today's vote goes the way we need it to.

Friday, 28 August 2009

A flurry of surveys and studies

A girl prepares for perhaps a clitoridectomy in Indonesia

The FGM world has been active in the last few days. No one has told it that it's summer.

Firstly, news of a DoH funded intiative in partnership with FORWARD. It is a questionnaire that goes out to various health professionals in the UK, asking about their interaction with FGM over a certain time period.

Secondly, a study that FORWARD has released, called rather heartbreakingly: "FGM is always with us" - experiences, perceptions and beliefs of women affected by FGM in London.

Thirdly, a services and support guide to FGM, particularly aimed at young people and teachers. It tells in extremely plain language who is at risk, what to do if you suspect a girl is at risk and gives a list of support services that people can access.

All can be accessed from www.forwarduk.org.uk

Fourthly (yes, there's more!) UNFPA have put out their Global Consultation 112 page report into FGM, its trends and issues for maternal and newborn health (here: http://bit.ly/5uhmi)

But the wider issues continue. In the twittersphere, @taskforce FGM tweets: "Reflecting the last days: studies, conferences, blablabla: Damn hypocrisy! When will UN & Co. start to truly ACT for an end of #FGM?"

One of the things I've noticed more since my involvement in this world is that things are changing slowly - we have heard of women who have decided not to cut their daughters, of villages that have abandoned the practice.

Partly this is a communications issue - who is telling the stories? Who is saying what is happening that is positive? But also, who is doing the proper monitoring and evaluation? How to work out if the situation is improving?

A few years ago, the statistics used by the UN jumped. It used to be two million girls a year were affected by FGM. Now it's stated that it's three million girls a year. A sudden jump of one million. The range of those living with FGM is in the region of 100 - 140 million. Yet even a cursory mathematical glance shows how difficult this is. If Indonesia has a population of 250m and therefore, about 125m are women, and at the very very lowest, say there's a 20% prevalence rate (although we know it to be higher) - already that's 25m women, without taking on Africa at all.....

Some may argue that Indonesia practices type 4, which is scraping or pricking the clitoris. But a USAID report from 2005 states that because of the medicalisation of FGM, nurses are using scissors instead of a blade, and of course the easiest thing to do with scissors is to cut the entire clitoris off, so clitoridectomies are growing in Indonesia.

So how to know if any change is being made if we are unable to start with a baseline figure that everyone agrees upon?

And even if we have a good baseline, how to monitor it and ensure we are changing anything?

As ever, we are reliant on local action, global voices.

As summer holiday season clouds to an end, I am slightly heartened that things are happening on the FGM front. But is it enough?

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

August, holiday mode

Today, the offices are quiet. Offices everywhere are quiet. Outside is a beautiful summer's day, with achingly blue skies. Opposite me is an oil painting done by a women who has gone through FGM. She sits naked, legs apart fearfully gazing down between them, at a present - a wrapped yellow box with green flowers on the paper. It has an orange bow. A veritable gift. Onto the gift are fallings, streams of her blood, intermingling with the tears coursing down her face. It seems to sum up the fearful juxtaposition of the gift and celebration by which FGM is ushered in.

My mission is to look at the inbox from the website, that handles general enquiries.

A heart-rending mix. Some are straightforward requests from healthcare organisations wanting training, others are about linking to our website. So far, so good. But the ones that make me pause for a time and stay with me on the bus home are about people asking for help. Real help. Mothers and fathers, boyfriends, girls themselves. Some are UK based, others are wider afloat. All have their own story.

In a recent discussion about sexual health and reproductive rights and women being able to access their own sexual pleasure, I was struck by how FGM precedes this whole discusion. How to access these if girls are wounded at such a young age?

As ever with my blog, more questions than answers.

I leave you with two thoughts - one is that a recent study in Iraqi Kurdistan showed a prevelance rate of around 80% FGM (here: http://tinyurl.com/ptx98s) the second is that Egypt has arrested its first person for practising FGM (here: http://bit.ly/v5jxK)

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Coming at it from a different angle...

You'll know that I've been struggling with the "direct intervention" ideas behind eradicating FGM. If it were that easy, it would have ended years ago. Various people have talked to me about systemic change and not looking at the problem head-on.
Two recent news stories made me ponder.

The first, in The Huffington Post, by H'Rina DeTroy outlines a new practice in the Sudan (80% prevalence) where women are communicating through henna designs on their hands that they do not want their daughters to undergo FGM:

Called the henna technique, a special design dyed temporarily on the skin can indicate to a midwife that a mother wants to avoid genital mutilation on her daughter. The tattoos serve as a bridge to discuss what is traditionally taboo. In turn, a midwife can stage a fake circumcision."

NGOs are apparently teaching midwives how to fake FGM and henna artist is the go-between that allows the mother to safely communicate what she wants to happen to her daughter. What is wonderful about this "intervention" is that it purely picks up on the mother's wishes and communicates it in a way that is kept within the women's "code" of communication. I wonder how the midwife "fakes" it? Just a small nick to the clitoris perhaps?

Here's the full link to the story: http://bit.ly/1a1Gqu

The second story was equally compelling. A report for Women's Hour on another NGO in India, that is teaching girls to play netball. This freedom of expression through sport has led to a strong sense of freedom of expression overall. Of course, the girls are also taught other skills and are offered training courses in wider issues, such as HIV/AIDs and Sexual Reproductive Health but the netball has seemed to have had the most positive impact.

The report states that child marriage (14/15 years) is still very prevalent in the area of India that they are working in and a girl's voice is unlikely to be heard. Through this empowerment, this physical allowance of getting girls to express themselves through sport, they are literally more free to express themselves in the home. Link to the BBC website below.

It's, once again, far far too late to be posting. But I feel slightly invigorated by this - and by, finally a long talk with my best friend and my god-daughters, oh so far away.

Sleep well, all.


Thursday, 30 July 2009

Public awareness is all well and good....

"....but what is the systemic confluence of tradition, religion, sexual politics, gender economics, education, politics, healthcare etc. that keeps something like FGM in place? And how do we break that system?"

writes my friend Marshall in response to my plinth self-PR. And he is right (check out his work at: www.idiagram.com). The skeins of FGM interweave and can sometimes seem so dense that it might be easier to find some other life's purpose. But purpose tends to do that to one - pull you in and not let you go....

The root of the systemic confluence is female empowerment. Why should women be empowered in patriarchal communities that have been propped up for centuries and are reliant on women's obedience, women's bodies and women's control?

If even the women themselves have appropriated their own means of submission and inflict this on their daughters, this indeed is a tough cycle to break.

But perhaps my mission is just to find the end of the skein of the wool and start unravelling from there....

Plinth video, finally!


And photographs here:


Thursday, 23 July 2009

Two weeks later...

I cannot believe it is exactly two weeks since the last entry. Two weeks since plinthing and the aftermath and everything that entails.

Outside, the Edgware Road has been subdued by the quietest hush. When I look out of the window, I see six sets of blue lights circling and the scene gradually emerges - two ambulances, three police cars and a fire engine. Then I see the firemen gathered around what is left of a car, working frantically. The police hold back the crowds, the traffic is redirected, hence the hush. Lights are brought onto the scene and still the firemen work, even more frenetically. I am drawn magnetically to the window and watch mesmerised from my 6th floor viewpoint at the unfolding.
I can't see any details, just the vagueries of what is happening. But perhaps after 20 minutes, the frantic motions stop. The firemen still work away, but the scene changes. My breath mists the window as I figure out what is going on. Whomever was in the car must have died.

The franticness ends. What point being frantic once the spirit has departed? I spend a moment thinking about that person, thinking about all those who worked with them in their last moments. How fragile we are. How slender is the line that keeps us on this earth.

Somehow it commits me more to do what I can, however I can. In this small moment of quietness and stillness on the Edgware Road, with the crowds gathered to witness. I remember road traffic accidents in Cambodia and how no-one would stop - people would just pass by. If a victim did not have money to get to hospital, then why would anyone care? It reminds me of what I'm grateful for, for being here, in my home land, my home town.

It reminds me that this path of FGM is a difficult one too. The other day, Estelle and I talked of child marriage. It seems hard, perhaps even specious to link the two, so perhaps, actually I won't.

Instead, I will go to bed and hope for a dreamful night. I wanted to say something about losing loved ones and how that feels. Because somehow in this moment of losing that person, whomever it was, it feels so very real. That for whatever reason we love, we always have to let go, hard as it is.

This is not quite the FGM blog that I thought it was going to be, so I had better close. And live to fight another day.....

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Plinth pictures...

Me, the 76th plinther!

and possibly too tired to make any sense of this at all tonight - I should probably wash the fake blood out of my hair and get some kip.

But, as it happened today, today it should be recorded - however briefly. The 4th plinth was, quite simply, remarkable. The questions in my previous post all went answered.

I stood, wobbly at first, but with growing confidence, I pulled t-shirts on (surprising myself each time at the country!) and tried to find relevant phrases and thoughts about each one. The bag seemed to have never-ending amounts of t-shirts in.

The ritual began - find something meaningful to say, reach down, find the knife glinting in the sun amongst the strewn roses, try to steady myself (it's higher than you think, narrower than you think up there) then as I'm holding the fragile velvet of the rose, it all comes together, it really does feel like this is something beautiful, amazing, delicate that I'm about to desecrate. Each time I did this, something inside me leapt at the horror of it, a feeling deep in my solar plexus - my voice seemed to waver, but I found a way of saying: this is for the three million girls, some of whom may live in Mauritania, who may be cut this year.

The actual cut was brutal, but there was something remarkable about the moment after, where I put down the knife, then stood, with the petals crushed in my hand, then flung them high above. Holding this pose of freedom - arms outstretched into the wind, with the petals falling around me seemed to release me from the horror of the cut. People applauded. Without fail. Every single time.

Then the brighter, upbeat t-shirt chat. Remarkably, people fought over getting a t-shirt flung at them from on the plinth. Not only that, they stayed and wore them!

I realise a blog post of this nature without pictures is like (insert suitable metaphor - too tired) I will post some as soon as I can.

So, 30 t-shirts later, much crowd recognition (THANK YOU ALL SUPPORTERS) and a few mishaps in my communication (I never did get the 3 million phrase quite right) and it was time to pull the show to a close....

Kneeling down, with a photo blown up of two small girls in Lalibela, Ethiopia, with the most beautiful smiles. The wind rises and blows around me, the headless rose stems are underneath me, thorns pricking my knees. I take the knife and, it needs a deep breath to do it, slice carefully into the smile. The knife eases in, enjoying its task. It cuts the paper so easily - does it happen that easily to flesh I wonder? I look up - the crowd is watching. I feel connected and disconnected. The cameras are watching.

I have to keep going, although at that point, I want to put the knife down and walk from the plinth. It feels too real. I think I may cry. But I look down - I've started. I continue my cutting, which becomes sawing, almost hacking. I had only meant to do one girl, but I have to do both. It would have been both.

Then, knife down, I pick up the string and thread it through the slashes and gashes I have made. The string pulls at the paper lips, as it would pull at the girls' lips. I have moved through the emotion now - I'm aware that I have literally minutes left.

I stand up, the blood is in a small bottle and I hold the picture at waist height. I have already desecrated it once, I can do it again... deep breath and I pour the blood over the two faces. It skims viscously down. I don't dare look at the crowd. I feel it rather than see it drip down onto my legs and then, hold the picture aloft, high up and throw my head back.

The blood drips down my face and the rivulets of red run.

I hear people below applauding. My time is up.

One man comes up to me later, in his disabled buggy - he says thank you. I did not know that. I did not know that happened. Thank you for telling me.

He takes my hand. It seemed to say it all.

I think the main message came across. Three million girls. Every single year.

More later - hopefully more visuals.

Now, to bed.

Monday, 6 July 2009

4th plinth

Today's brain tickler - if appearing at very short notice on the plinth, what to do?

Feedback already has been stilted, people have been commenting that it is underwhelming to say the least. Estelle and I brainstorm different options today in the office. We unpack the model of a woman's torso, with interchangeable bits to show different types of FGM - so you can take out a "type II" and insert a "type III (infibulated)". There's also a pretty graphic one with a baby's head trying to push through an infibulation. Quite graphic. After a while of looking at it, we decide, absolutely definitely that the clitoris is in the wrong place. We end up saying to each other that we definitely know where our clitorises are... Estelle figures out long before I do that we have the entire model upside down....

Then we turn to various posters and banners that they have. We ponder for a while, then I discard that thought. It looks too staged. This is an art project after all.

Estelle makes me flinch when I ask her if we have any examples of knives or cutting instruments. "No" she replies, "but we do have some of the thorns that are used to close the incision." A quick search of the premises however, do not reveal the thorns. I think I am grateful.

So, the brainstorm continues - we come up with the idea of cutting the rose. Perhaps a rose for a number of children. How to make the figures work? There are 3 million girls at risk a year. A phone call with Julian from a boat in Majorca. He urges me to think more creatively, to event plan, to write out what I'm doing for the whole hour. He is right - I need to do more.

Any thoughts?

Much more to write - in particular about the seminar we held about Women, Islam and Sexuality.

Back soon....

Thursday, 25 June 2009

A lot of talk about Africa and AntiChrist

This week, two talks about "moving Africa out of poverty". The first with the rather beguiling, measured Dambisa Moyo et al and the second, at "Business Fights Poverty" with, amongst others, Simon Maxwell of the ODI, Baroness Chalker, Sunil Sinha and Edward Bickham (Anglo-American).

Two very interesting debates - which outlined the absolute breadth and difficulty of the discussion. At least the IRC event with Dambisa speaking attracted a smattering of African attendees, who were able to put their viewpoints. The latter event had barely anyone there who was able to talk fro the perspective of what might work for Africa.

The first event exhorted the donor community to give up aid and let the free market prevail, the second event seemed to be casting around to find ways of meaningful engagement for business. There was a definite gap in the middle.

And then yesterday, a quick coffee with Mike and much discussion about film and how it's used. We are approaching a second round of a funding application for some of our young girls to make vox pops and two shorts on FGM; he was kind enough to be open to the opportunity of mentoring us through this process.

But to my horror, he places in front of me an article in the Observer Film Monthly about von Triers' new film AntiChrist. There is a discussion about the shocking moment when Charlotte Gainsbourg cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of rusty scissors.

This has been playing on my mind ever since. I wonder about whether to comment more widely than this - along the lines of: "whilst we appreciate that film plays a role in entertainment, this issue is a real-life horror story for the 3 million girls at risk each year from FGM" - does engaging at this level undermine the reality of the debate?

Does a Danish-based film director, making a comment on the grief-stricken horror of one character that leads her to do this to herself, have any resonance with the real fight against FGM? And if not, is it even right to make the connection?

The communications person in me says that if the media is writing, even obliquely about FGM, (and even self-FGM??!!! which I need to find out more about) then it is an opportunity.

Any thoughts?

Friday, 19 June 2009

Friday afternoon

and the end of a busy week. Outside, the clouds gather - close, summery weather, with a sharp snap of coldness to it.

Several meetings this week that get the juices flowing and anomalies creep out as I begin to suss out twitter.

Clearly, Germany's laws against FGM are not as well-founded as ours. A young girl is being allowed to return to Ethiopia, where she is at certain risk from FGM. In spite of being German born, her parents believe that she needs to undergo FGM. She is 10 years old. I wonder what becomes of innocence when mutilation is concerned? What were you doing aged 10?

There is an on-line petition to sign, perhaps you may be persuaded:
"Help us protect a 10-year old girl from FGM!"

A long meeting with the woman who does community outreach. She points out that the women she works with are ground down by so many issues - health, education, access to services, language barriers, cultural barriers, sometimes violence in the home, often, as asylum seekers, simple overall fear of being sent "home".

FGM can sometimes come way down the list. Particularly, when you discover that some women are genuinely not aware of what has been done to them. Seriously. Because imagine if this has happened to you when you are 3 - how would you remember? How would you know that this is a different thing - particularly if, back in your community at home, all little girls, teenage girls had exactly the same thing, "down below."

She tells me of an occasion last week when a woman had called up and asked whether the "bridge" they had between their legs, the "bridge of thick skin" - whether that meant they had been cut. Yes. It did. She went further to explain that it was always difficult for any of these women to access healthcare, particularly sexual healthcare, because of a belief that any touching of the genitals was forbidden. So even for women to go for a smear test was not allowed.

The things that slowly reveal. Lastly, she and I talked of the partnership with the Islamic Cultural Centre and the importance of the seminar taking place on Monday 29th June, about women, sexuality and health (and indeed, violence) in Islam. For more details on this seminar, check out www.forwarduk.org.uk

Earlier in the week, some of these worlds came together, with a report on Woman's Hour of what women in this country call their own genitals. It was fascinating to realise what taboos we have - even talking euphemistically about genitals in our society seemed so hard - how would others expect to find it easier?

Again, more questions than answers, but I'm enjoying the unravelling......

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Late, late, late

And lame. No excuses - more than a week has passed and this is exactly what I didn't want to happen. To lose track of the journey. To have the steps on the path day by day disappear.

However, part of my frustration I must lay at the door of the Tube strike. No fewer than EIGHT meetings or events that had to be cancelled or moved as a result of it. It played havoc with my week and for the first time, me, a transport spod, has little sympathy with the RMT and their actions. Grrrrrr.

Other excuses: stolen bike, workmen in the flat, intermittent internet connection. You get the picture. Back to the subject matter in hand...

An interesting meander through the rules and guidelines for setting up an All Party Parliamentary Group. 20 member minimum; 10 from sitting party, minimum of 6 from opposition, 4 can be Crossbenchers or others. A quick check in with the Parli Officer, who says that there is nothing similar to an FGM group being established and that one would be welcomed and we're free to go. All that needs to happen is we must identify a chair, treasurer, secretary - as well as being transparent and clear about costs and funding. So, hopefully we can get something up and running relatively quickly..... she says.

The film - hmmm. A different matter. The film of Desert Flower is definitely going ahead in Germany. It will premiere on 17th September. But distribution in the UK is - well, all I can say is that the company who is promoting the rights were cagey at best. In a very polite way. They have taken my email address and will contact me if they know anything. A dead end I sense. I need another avenue.

On Friday, an interesting chat about lobbying for a women's agency for the UN. Time is tight for a decision to be made. It seems sticking points are around whether it actually gets into this session for the UN (which ends on 14 September) or into the next session (beginning on 15 September - don't these guys take a holiday?). Quite what happens if it slips to the next session is an interesting question. I suppose we lose a year.

In spite of my reservations about setting something up in the image and under the aegis of the UN (my favourite quote about which, from Stephen Lewis: "a combination of sophistry and misogyny") I think this agency could have a lot going for it. Not least a focal point for everything that needs to happen around the women's agenda. Not least for FGM. Imagine having a place where you can go to lobby, make the case, get concerted action, get funding... A UN women's agency wouldn't be able to pass the buck. More on this later..... particularly if we do gear up a campaign.

Other conversations of note, with my friend Maggie Brenneke (grrrr - cancelled meeting) from SustainAbility - as we talk of social entrepreneurship and other matters.

With Caitlin, who is setting up a symposium on systemic thinking. We ponder about change and how it happens, as we sit on the balcony in the late day sunshine. She mentions how smoking has changed - and it wasn't how we thought - it was through the premise that no one should have to breathe smoke passively at work. She gets at the FGM problem in a different way - invites me to think about it differently - what else would have to happen in order for FGM to be eradicated? I wonder about better intimacy and sexual relations for men. Would this stop them insisting on marrying mutilated women? Would that lead to a massive shift in what was being done to little girls? Too clumsy. Any thoughts?

But it makes me realise that direct intervention is a blunt instrument and that understanding the cultural context for each country, each region, damn.... even each village - is crucial.

More, more, more thinking to be done.

The thoughts flowed freely at an Addis reunion around my table this Sunday lunchtime. We all spoke of what we missed and the things that we had come back to that we didn't expect. It was lovely to see some of the gang again, against the mayhem of the builders, the dryness of the cous-cous, the tang of Alex's home-made gooseberry and redcurrant crumble. And our first toast was to the indomitable Jeremy, in all his glory, survivor of a random stabbing in Shola market, Addis, a mere 28 days ago. How slender.... (both life and Jeremy)

And whilst not about FGM in any way, shape or form, I simply had to mention my Saturday afternoon, where I inadvertently joined in with the World Naked Bike Ride. You'd think that would be hard to do, but it was surprisingly easy! Let's say this - I did it for the sense of freedom that was mine to hold, in mind, body and soul, as I freewheeled down Park Lane.

How much freedom we have is almost non-sensical to me, having seen those who have it not.

Gather ye rosebuds....

Friday, 5 June 2009

The race is not for the swift, it is for those who endure it

Thus spoke Prof Jacqui at Tuesday's training, it struck a chord with me. Today, I'm still playing catch up. Outside, the rain fleets down, the sky is cotton wool grey and the traffic on the Edgware Road stutters. Another cup of tea is in order.

I had hoped to catch up with Mike yesterday, to ask his advice on film, but we both somehow ran out of time. My questions to him were all going to be around the Waris Dirie film of "Desert Flower" which is due for release in Germany, in September 2009. As she is an ex-UN ambassador against FGM and now has her own foundation, the film is likely to concentrate on this. I want to see if it will be shown in the UK and if so, whether we can somehow maximise the PR potential around it.

Toby at Freud has already given me some ideas, but I've got to get down and do something concrete now. Film is an amazing way of capturing the public and this could be a huge missed opportunity. Toby put a very pertinent question to me though - "is the film any good?" Hmmmm. It has both Juliet Stevenson and Meera Syal in it, both actresses of calibre, but I know this means little.

Some other facts about FGM (I'm breaking you in gently, you see...) There are different types.

Type 1: Excision of the hood of the clitoris (prepuce) with or without excision of part or all of the clitoris

Type 2: Excision of the hood and clitoris together with partial or total excision of the labia minora

Type 3: Excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching of the vaginal opening (also known as infibulation or pharaonic type)

Type 4: All other types! Includes pricking, piercing, incision, cauterising of the clitoris, scraping or cutting of the vagina.

So there's the technical stuff. Sorry, didn't mean to go straight into that on a Friday lunchtime, but it had to be done to take me to my next point.

I was a guest of LCA's at dinner last night. Land Aid's "Party Near the Park" and it was a real pleasure to see the gang again and do our stuff on the dance floor. Mariam's partner was sitting next to me at dinner and he was open-mided enough to ask all the right questions: How to pee? How to have periods? What happens when it comes to giving birth?

Of course, all the answers are as you'd expect. With hellish difficulty. Type 3, infibulation, is often the most invasive and has the most severe repercussions. Girls are left with a tiny opening through which their menstrual blood passes. But not always - it can get severly backed up and cause huge problems with infection.

As to giving birth, women have to be de-infibulated - opened up again. Clinical guidelines here say that a woman can be de-infibulated, but not re-infibulated. Sometimes, women will therefore return to their country of origin to have this done. Because this for them is their normality.

I'm trying to be careful with language. Being judgemental in this debate does not help anyone. We here sense the horror of FGM. To the communities where it happens, it is entirely normal. And let's not forget, earlier last century, "hysterical" women in both the US and the UK routinely had their clitorises removed, as a cure. So who are we to pass judgement?

Other thoughts that emerged this week:

The police have to grapple with not only girls being flown out from the UK during their summer holidays when this happens, but also with circumcisers being flown in from other countries. They may cut a number of girls whilst "on holiday" here.

Girls from other countries may be flown into the UK to be cut. I think there was a case of this happening with girls from Denmark.

I get a quick email from Barbara. She is chair of the foundation for mother and child health, which she founded some years ago whilst living in Jakarta. I am one of the trustees. Together, she and I explored and found to our horror that type 4 (remember? pricking/cauterising clitoris) is prevalent in Indonesia. Not only prevalent. Growing. And linked to the Islamic faith.

Do you know how many people live in Indonesia? Take a guess... ok - 250m. So Barbara promises to follow up with her health workers and volunteers in the field, and she is en route to West Timor, so will have a look at it there too.....

OK - I'm sure blogs aren't meant to be this much of a ramble... are you still with me?

My final task for the day - to find out how to set up an All Party Parliamentary Group. About time too.. with what's left of Parliament.....

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Tuesday 2nd June, King's, London

I know, I know - I've got my days back to front. Today IS Thursday, but this post belongs in a Tuesday.

So, better late than never.

I was privileged to be an interloper at a day's training at King's College, London. Training for midwives. There were about eight motivated participants and we sat through a number of lectures about the impacts of FGM. Some wonderful presenters.

The Met Police outlined Project Azure, which really concentrates on prevention of FGM, both in this country and outside of it. It is:

1. An offence to commit FGM
2. An offence to assist a girl to commit FGM on herself (boy - some sort of arcane loophole that had to be closed here!)
3. An offence for someone in the UK to arrange or assist FGM outside of the UK, even if not a UK national
4. Any act done outside of the UK, by a UK national

The example we were given was if a girl's father makes a phone call to his country of origin to arrange FGM, then the mother takes the girl back to the country, then the grandmother/cutter commits the offence - who in that line of perpetration can be prosecuted?

Answer - all of them.

In reality, there has not been one single prosecution for FGM in the UK. There is now a £20,000 reward (£10k from the Met, £10k from the Waris Dirie Foundation) for any evidence leading towards prosecution. I imagine this figure will go unclaimed for some time. The stigma in communities about disclosure will be strong and no doubt, the mistrust of authorities will run deep.

Another chasm between reality and actuality came from the talk given by the Chair of the London Safeguarding Children Board - when they came to compile statistics, there were only 2 cases of FGM recorded in London. Given that a recent report by Forward (A Statistical Study to Estimate the Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales, 2007) identified up to 20,000 girls under the age of 15 at risk to FGM in these areas, it can be seen that the reported figures show anomalies.

Christine mentioned in her talk that the DoH may be close to appointing a National FGM Co-Ordinator. Hmmmm - watch this space.

The vivacious and heart-warming Prof Jacqueline kept us motivated for over an hour, with her talk on FGM and health promotion. In response to one of my questions, she replied that her touchstone was working with women like the midwives I was sitting with. That those in the front-line of healthcare would always be the touchstone of what was really going on. This struck me as so true.

As we spilled out into the summer Waterloo sunshine for lunch, I had a long chat with Cath, a fellow VSO returned volunteer. She spent her placement in North West Kenya, a place called Pokot. She spoke movingly of the circumcision rite that she was invited to attend all those years ago. Of the girls, aged around puberty, dressed up, draped on stones, with the entire village amassed to watch the proceedings, but far away, up on the crest of a sort of hill. The girls legs were held open and one by one, the cutter went quickly towards each and in one stroke, removed the labia and clitoris. One trainee cutter was clearly having her first go, because as she removed the genitals, she held them up in the air and whooped with achievement.

Later, Cath was invited by a conciliatory woman, beckoned through the bushes and came across the girls, all lying down, legs parted, for further cutting. Now the ceremony had passed, they were being "tidied up." She spoke of one girl whose face held such fear, whose mien had huge dark beads of sweat all over it as she was held and cut again.

Cath then told me of going back this year, to an event with Traditional Birth Attendants where a local chief spoke out against FGM, where the 80 or so TBAs were thinking of not cutting any more. One of the things she outlined was that TBAs were seeing the effects first hand of what cutting did to the girls, who were now old enough to be mothers and had problems delivering.

I asked her to see if she could follow up to see what led the village chief to speak out on FGM. For this surely is a huge part of it. If community elders are involved, then locally decided change can empower people. One of the TBAs told Cath that her church was preaching against it and this led her to change her mind - God had created us with these parts, who were we to remove them? Cath mentioned the juxtaposition of how normal the rite was with the horror of witnessing it. And of how the girls asked her afterwards to buy them soft drinks, as if as a reward for what they had gone through.

So, that was Tuesday. Off to Hil and Verity's for a summer supper overlooking the common as the light fell gently across the green and the day faded. Talk of capitalism, fires, Kenya and FGM interspersed and we all thought of our chum Julia, close, close, close to her due date. The sweet peas I bought in a careless, fun interaction about men with the flower seller outside Clapham Junction, glowed pinkly, as luminous as the dusk sky.

137 bus home in all of 20 minutes and thoughts of young girls and Africa flurry through my mind and take me to sleep.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

I was in Ethiopia last year. Life changing experience in more ways than one. The most important? I had my eyes opened to FGM - female genital mutilation.

It's been a long journey since then. Almost six months of transition and finding the courage to stop working for a daily wage and try and immerse myself in this field.

Part of the reason for a blog? Because now I'm out there in the world, self motivation is going to be one of my issues. I thought that sharing the journey might somehow make the path I travel wider.

I don't want to give too much history, I also want to tread carefully at first - this is a difficult field and some are working in it with certain risks attached. So, full disclosure may not always be possible. However, what I want to do in this blog is show just what is going on, the battle that is faced, the wars that are being fought on the frontline.

I make no apology for emotive language, I simply say that this is an emotional issue, but more than this, it is an entirely preventable thing that happens. It happens to young girls, every day of the year. We can prevent this from happening. This is not cultural insensitivity or imperialism - it is a blatant infringement of human rights, of child rights. Every woman has the right to her life (because some die as a direct result) their health, their genitals. To me, it's simple.

So, here begins my journey. I hope you can join me on it!