Last month I was delighted to be invited to join Forward (Foundation for Women’s Health and Development) as an educator on female genital mutilation.
Forward have been working on this issue for decades and working in schools for four years. They run a youth programme working with young people across the country empowering them to speak out about it. Over the last few years the issue of FGM has grown in public consciousness and they have been increasingly asked to give talks in schools.
In order to manage increasing demand, they have employed 15 educators to work across schools in London, I am delighted to be part of that team.
For the last three Saturdays I have been being trained with a group of 14 other inspirational women and men. We have learnt the details of FGM, how to create a safe space in schools, facilitating open debate and how to deal with disclosures.
Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or female genital cutting, is defined as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
It is estimated that a whopping 100-140 million African women have undergone FGM worldwide and each year, a further 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of the practice in Africa alone. Most of them live in African countries, a few in the Middle East and Asian countries, and increasingly in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, the United States of America and Canada. Forward estimates that around 6,500 girls in the UK are at risk of FGM.
The training was brilliant. The staff at Forward were knowledgeable and inspirational. FGM has potentially damaging health consequences and is most often done to girls age three to eight years old, it was often an emotional subject to discuss but we developed techniques to manage non-emotive debate about it.
A lot of discussion arose about the difference between vaginal cosmetic surgery and FGM. FGM is illegal in the UK at any age, but in the UK a young person can have vaginal cosmetic surgery from 16 with parental permission. Cosmetic surgeons would argue that their surgery is undertaken for medical reasons including psychological and presumably psychological damage for having genitals that do not confirm to what society thinks is normal. The same is potentially true of a young woman from an FGM affected community but at no point are they able to consent to it. We had no simple answers to this conundrum but I certainly learnt a lot through the debates.
I can’t wait to get into schools and start working with young people on this issue. Working with young people has been the most challenging but inspiring part of my career.