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 - 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.