Five things we learnt about preventing FGM/C

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago
From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

The third NETFA Forum, Foundations for Change in Melbourne gathered together a group of amazing women to discuss women’s rights, health and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). For those of you who couldn’t make it, we’ve put together a list of five key messages that we took away from the event:

1. It’s about gender equality
FGM/C is a challenging issue to talk about because it varies across cultures, countries and migration contexts. The reasons for practising it are diverse. Despite this, we can see some common underlying factors, in particular gender discrimination and gender stereotypes. Any response or attempt to address FGM/C must focus on these underlying issues. Panellists spoke about how FGM/C is often ‘siloed’ as an ‘African women’s issue’, preventing us from seeing it as an issue of gender inequality. Speakers advocated for working within a human rights framework when doing prevention work – this can highlight the lived, everyday injustices experienced by women affected by FGM/C, including forms of gendered health inequality. When addressing FGM/C, all agreed that having an intersectional understanding of gender equality was critical and acknowledging that racism informs the debate.

2. It’s about strengthening our health systems
Immigrant women and girls affected by FGM/C are often referred to as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, when it is often more accurate to say that they are made vulnerable or have been placed at risk by policies, systems and institutions. Many strategies often point to the need to build the capacity of health professionals with less attention paid to the need to strengthen the health system itself. The forum devoted a lot of time to discussing the structural and social factors that impact on immigrant women’s and girls’ unequal access to sexual and  reproductive health services and how services can better respond to these inequities. A key factor to achieving equity is the work being carried out by bilingual workers. Forum participants highlighted the need to value the skilled and complex work of the bilingual educators in the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) in Victoria. Ultimately, strengthening our health systems will help women and girls exercise more control in, as well as be more informed about, the type of care they receive.

3. It’s not simply a ‘cultural’ issue.
There is now widespread agreement that FGM/C cannot be justified by cultural or religious reasons. However, when FGM/C is compared to female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) such as labiaplasty it is often labelled a ‘cultural’ issue whereas the latter is considered to be a medical one. As a result, FCGS is not nearly as scrutinised. Panellists spoke about the similarities and differences between both procedures, arguing that both involve socialisation and shame relating to women’s bodies. Both become accepted as ‘normal’ in different contexts. To be able to view both practices as such gave us a more nuanced understanding of ‘culture’.  At the same time, it was noted that there are some important differences, with much discussion on how FGCS and comparisons with FGM/C can depoliticise advocacy work being conducted to prevent FGM/C. For children who are subjected to FGM/C there is little to no choice and therefore cannot be viewed in the same way as women choosing to have either procedure later in life. The idea of ‘choice’ here is a complex one. Despite this, there is merit in understanding both practices as not simply or only cultural, but as gendered practices that impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

4. It’s important that women and girls from FGM/C affected communities have an equal voice
‘Nothing about us without us’ was the idea carried on from our last forum with the idea following on that  all work relating to FGM/C prevention should be carried out with the full and direct participation of women and girls from FGM/C affected communities. An effective multisectoral response needs to ensure that affected communities are at the forefront of efforts. The speakers discussed the many ways that law enforcers, educators and advocates can work together with communities to prevent FGM/C. This included creating a space where knowledge can be shared, again strengthening our existing networks.

5. It’s a human rights issue
FGM/C is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of women and girls. Human rights are a precondition for social justice and as a party to both the CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action, Australia has committed itself to being a society that supports equal rights for all women and men. However, in a migration country such as Australia, human rights particularly in relation to FGM/C can be poorly understood. There was much discussion on how we, as workers, can better engage with international human rights standards for more effective advocacy. While acknowledging ‘humanity as the common denominator’, international keynote speaker Amina Mohamed Warsame invited us to understand human rights as ‘a question of opportunities’ and that immigrant women need to be given both the rights and resources to achieve transformational change.