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

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!