If there's one thing we've learned since we began the National Education Toolkit for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Awareness Project, it's that talking about FGM/C in Australia is complex. It's an issue that calls for an historical understanding, a shared language, and a more nuanced conversation than it’s received in the past. In Australia, it's also an issue that has to contend with racist reporting and misrepresentation. Most importantly, it's an issue that requires the expertise of lived experience - like all sexual and reproductive health issues, women and girls' experiences of FGM/C are individual, personal and often very different from one another, so the people impacted by the issue are the ones who we need to be listening to, and so often this is not the case.
Learning from international models that centre the voices of community members, MCWH spent several months in late 2021 conducting one-on-one interviews nationally, to ask what communities think is the most urgent and important work to be done to end FGM/C. Shared understanding has always been central to MCWH’s approach to resourcing community leadership, and so we’ve been listening. Listening to people from African, Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas in Australia, including from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan.
The message coming through from women and girls who are from communities where FGM/C is practiced, is one of empowerment and ownership. Women and girls want an equal voice in decision making and program development, control over implementation and greater accountability to communities. They want capacity building, public facing advocacy, and wider cultural awareness. To echo a key principle coined in the disability space, they want: “Nothing about us, without us.”
That's why we're passionate about how narratives around FGM/C are told; because who gets to tell stories about FGM/C matters. Decades of work through our FARREP program has shown us that talking about FGM/C in a way that is not condescending and respects the experiences and culture of the community is vital. Peer education, like the FARREP program, ensures better cultural and generational understanding and leads to more successful prevention of FGM/C, rather than further entrenching stigma.
Worryingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in increased gender inequality globally and there are indications that COVID-19 is also leading to more FGM/C being carried out on girls and women, and in increasingly undetected ways. So this years' International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM theme, "Accelerating Investment to End FGM" is a good reminder that we need to double down on our efforts! Our new NETFA Leadership Program will support community members to produce multilingual video and podcast resources, in their own words and in their own voice.