Last WRAP we lamented that your average, news-loving Australian is unlikely to learn about the complex issues related to ending female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) because, too often, that kind of complexity is pushed out in favour of some good-old heart-pumping, paper-selling sensationalism.
Now, thanks to the symposium that MCWH held in Melbourne this month, in partnership with our friends Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights (AMWCHR), we can share seven top tips taken from the day, as noted by participants themselves.
1. Don’t assume that women who have experienced FGM/C feel that they are victims or experience it in the same way.
This handy tip, from the AMWCHR media guide, is clearly not only useful for journalists. True, the temptation to simplify women’s experiences of FGM/C is probably strongest in media reporting. However, it can be challenging for anyone who is outside or new to the issue to set aside their assumptions about what women who have experienced FGM/C must feel, think or want. And as reporter Rachel Baxendale reminded us during a thoughtful panel discussion on media representation, it’s not easy for journalists either! AMWCHR’s ‘Respectful Dialogue’ is a much needed reference for anyone reporting on the issue.
2. Women affected by FGM/C need space to speak for themselves – not be spoken for.
We should have known that we didn’t need to look further than the irrepressible Juliana Nkrumah to redefine senational. Her message was simple: now is the time to recognise the leadership and build the voices of women affected by FGM/C in order to overcome the cultural inequities and privileges that are built into our health programs and services. There is a way to work with affected women that values and holds their voice, and there is more we can do to ensure that our work is not only community focused, but community-led and owned.
3. Age appropriate responses are as important as culturally appropriate ones.
If we thought the idea that women used Google doctor was a bit of an exaggeration, Natalija Nesvadbah from Mercy Hospital for Women, who provided the findings from a recently conducted project on young women’s attitudes and behaviours in seeking information about FGM/C, advised us otherwise. And guess what: young women affected by FGM/C want to talk about their sexual and reproductive health with other women who are the same age and who had similar experiences. Well, of course they do, and hearing this made us all wonder why did we hadn’t realised before.
4. There is a gap in FGM/C education and understanding for health professionals, particularly in rural and regional areas.
We know that health in rural and regional Australia is often neglected, so it wasn’t a huge surprise that communities affected by FGM/C living in regional Victoria often lack access to culturally appropriate services and interpreters. But as we learned from a research study conducted by Cathy Vaughan and Narelle White at University of Melbourne, uncertainty about how to talk about FGM/C, and the wish to protect positive relationships with communities, can lead health professionals to avoid the issue altogether in some smaller regional areas. And as NSW panellist Prof Elizabeth Elliot confirmed, the knowledge gap among paediatricians nationally, is just as big a concern.
5. Using alternative rites of passage, communities can abandon FGM/C by embracing cultural tradition, not rejecting it.
Sitting around talking about sexual and reproductive health does not sound like a fun night out for girls of any age. Enter Dr Casta Tungaraza, from African Women’s Council of Australia, talking about ‘kitchen parties’: a highly successful initiative that shows us how sexual and reproductive health education can be woven into existing cultural traditions and celebrations of womanhood. The parties bring girls together to share the excitement of reaching adulthood, to enjoy the support of their female relatives in the process and to ask questions about any health concerns they have without judgement. We think kitchen parties should be a new tradition for every girl.
6. Involving men and boys in this issue is important.
You might think that a Symposium about FGM/C would be the last place you’d find a man, but our men’s panel showed that they have a lot to say about it. The fact that FGM/C is traditionally restricted to the domain of women can obscure the wider social pressures and attitudes that sustain and support the practice, as well as the impact of FGM/C on family relationships. Attitudes that connect the need for FGM/C to women’s marriageability, sexual purity and beauty are reinforced and validated by the whole community, including men and boys, and their involvement is crucial in changing attitudes. Speaker Usama Shahid eloquently explained his research into ways of starting a thoughtful conversation with young men that can lead to positive results for the whole community.
7. Government is a key stakeholder, in providing support for complementary and mutually reinforcing action and commitment at international, national and community levels.
The Symposium marked the culmination of our National Education Toolkit Project which, like the 14 other federally funded initiatives, had a shining, albeit brief, lifespan. There have been some wonderful resources developed through all of the national FGM/C projects which will contribute significantly to our national knowledge-base and build the quality of our practice. We now need to build on the momentum.
Perhaps the most important lesson MCWH has learned from our international research is that effective FGM/C prevention is a long-term process and that coordination is crucial. World-wide, programs have worked best when they are human rights based, community led, and coordinated across international, national and community levels. And the important element in this whole equation is that actions at each level should be complementary and mutually reinforcing.
The Symposium certainly showcased the wonderful work that has been done, and there were some significant signposts for future action. Symposium participants spoke with one voice in their encouragement of both State and Federal governments to continue their support for the ongoing FGM/C prevention work.