Building a movement around Khatna

This is part 2 in a two-part series on FGM in India. Read Part 1 here

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or “Khatna”, as it is referred to in India, is practised secretly among the Bohra community. Over the past year, several women from the community have spoken up about the practice while encouraging other women from the community to speak up as well.

I speak to Mariya Taher from Sahiyo, an organisation building a movement against Khatna on this issue and their work.

“More than a year ago, five women who felt strongly about the ritual of female genital cutting within the Bohra community came together to fight this practise. Each one of us had been working on the topic for many years,” Mariya said. Mariya is a social worker, activist and writer who lives in the United States.

The group includes a social worker, a researcher, two filmmakers and a journalist located in different parts of the world; and all of whom had already been speaking out against the practice of Khatna.

“As our collaboration grew, we realised the need for an organised, informed forum within the community that could help drive a movement to bring an end to Khatna. That is how Sahiyo, the organization, was born,” Mariya added.

Sahiyo is the Bohra Gujarati word for ‘saheliyo’, or friends. She said that the word reflected the organisation’s mission to engage in dialogue with the community to find a collective solution.

Working on collecting data

The silence around the practice in India among Bohra women and women of Indian origin who have experienced Khatna has led to very few details about the extent of Khatna. Sahiyo tackles this problem by first documenting the experiences and narratives of women, one story at a time.

“We realised that the way to end FGC was to build a movement from the ground up. This included first finding out how widespread it was amongst the community. There are no large scale studies at the moment. Only anecdotal evidence. This is all very important, but we knew to be able to really reach out to our community, we needed to carry out a type of needs assessment, this is why we carried out the first online survey on khatna in 2015,” Mariya notes.

However, there is growing evidence through the voices of women who have experienced Khatna that it is prevalent even among Bohra women who have migrated. “Hence, there was a need to ensure that we were focusing on how to stop the practice amongst Bohra regardless of where in the world they were. To carry out this work, we also understand the importance of community outreach and education,” she added.

Sahiyo through its work at the grassroots level is spreading awareness about the practice through dialogue, conversations, group discussions and seminars. They have also been providing peer counselling and informational support to families who are considering the practice, and have been able to provide women the needed psycho-social support by connecting them to appropriate social services such as counsellors or social workers.

“One of our core areas of work is building from the ground up. We have been working on community-driven awareness and advocacy initiatives aimed towards ending FGC, such as organising townhall discussions and dialogue with Dawoodi Bohra women, Dawoodi Bohra clergy, doctors and nurses, midwives and “traditional cutters”, media,” Mariya stated.

Backlash from the community

There is a fear of being excommunicated from the community for speaking up on the issue. However, Mariya feels positive about the progress the community is making. “We are increasingly receiving responses online from people who support the practice – people telling us that we are speaking out just to gain publicity or that we are interfering with religious traditions. Which in turn is actually a good thing, as earlier on in our work, people were silent in response to what we did. Now, the issue is known in the wider community, and the work around awareness raising that we are doing about FGC (Khatna) can’t be ignored. So, actually, their opposition is leading to further debates within the community about Khatna, which is a good thing.”

India Speaks Out on FGM and Sahiyo are running a campaign Each One, Reach One to break the silence against Khatna. You can support the work being done by Sahiyo by speaking up against Khatna or reaching out to someone you know who might have been subjected to the practice.

You can follow them on Twitter: @SpeakOutonFGM and @Sahiyo2016 and join the conversation.

Photos courtesy of Each One, Reach One.

Indian women speak out against FGM

This article is part 1 of a two-part series on FGM in India

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is traditionally known to be practised in 30 African countries. According to latest reports from international agencies like UNICEF, it is said that FGM has been done on at least 200 million girls.

I recently interviewed Masooma Ranalvi who began a campaign to encourage Indian women from the Bohra community to speak up against the practice. The practice is called Khatna locally and is classified as Type 1 FGM by the WHO. It is estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million Bohras globally who have undergone FGM but numbers on how many have been cut are still unavailable.

GG: I read about the campaign India Speaks Out on FGM through the article highlighting the petition in The Ladies Finger. Till I read this article, I had no idea that the practice existed in India. It is usually portrayed as an African issue. Your thoughts?

MR: Yes that’s true. It is India’s best kept secret. There is a reason behind it. We as Bohra women who were subject to it never spoke about the practice to anyone ever. It is an extremely secretive ritual and a shroud of silence around it. Beginning from the manner in which it is done, by deceit, by not even informing the girl child about what is to happen to her. And of course no information about the WHY of it. The pain and trauma resulting from this is repressed and suppressed and no one wants to reveal or talk about it.

Second factor is the shame behind talking about this. As women we have been taught never to talk about anything sexual, about our reproductive organs, our sexuality and sexual problems. Until we began to speak out in open. This has in turn inspired many women to do so.

GG: How long have you been working on this issue?

MR: Since last year.

[You can read her writing about her experience here]

GG: You have on multiple occasions spoken about your own experience of Khatna. You are also documenting the experiences of other Bohra women who have experienced it. Why do you think this is important?

MR: For one its important for women to speak out about it. It is cathartic. It helps release the anger, frustration, helplessness. Secondly, its important for the world at large to hear these stories of a hidden and secretive ritual that being carried on since centuries in our own backyard. This is your regular educated and savvy women, who are professionals, who do it to their daughters. Sometimes we need to show a mirror to ourselves, to see what and who we actually are. And finally and most importantly these stories are inspirational and help building solidarity with our other sisters and strengthen our anti FGM movement.

GG: What were the challenges you have faced while speaking up?

MR: The biggest challenge is to challenge the control of the clergy over the bodies and minds and lives of the adherents. The control is not just over the religious practices but over secular life as well. The control is deep and absolute and women or men who have even remotely challenged any practice have been threatened with repercussions. There is a strong and real fear of social boycott which has been used in the past to bring dissenters in line. Women fear for themselves and their families, their businesses and their social lives as well. The challenge for us is to break this fear psychosis and give them courage to speak out. Because this is a practice which harms us and our girls. We need to speak about it to banish it from our lives.

From February 6 (which is recognised as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) by the United Nations General Assembly) to March 8 (International Women’s Day) India Speaks Out on FGM along with Sahiyo are running a campaign called Each One, Reach one.

GG: Through Each One, Reach One, what do you hope to achieve?

MR: The underlying principle behind it is to help break the silence now. The campaign aims to erase the secrecy around female circumcision and generate a healthy dialogue about it.During our  conversation, we want share stories about khatna: memories of the day when the cut was done, feelings and emotions towards the experience, the reasons given for the practice, the reasons behind the silence around the practice, the physical, psychological and sexual impact of the practice for women. A healthy conversation that is  respectful, rather than judgmental, moralistic or aggressive.

Apart from speaking out about Khatna, Masooma is also trying to draw the attention to the fact that United Nations doesn’t list India as a location where it is practised. This is a grave oversight and injustice to the women who it has been practised on and those who might suffer it. However the Sustainable Development Goals now make it mandatory for all countries to begin reporting on FGM. 

To help, Sign the petition to End FGM in India, and help spread the word and raise awareness! 

Featured image courtesy of India Speaks Out on FGM campaign. 

*Post has been edited to clarify the number of Bohra women estimated to have experienced FGM and to make a note of the SDG requirement to report on FGM. 

Let’s Talk About Adolescent Health

​There is a growing conversation among adolescents, communities, organizations, the private sector and other stakeholders concerning the future and health of adolescents around the world. There are close to 1.8 billion adolescents living in the world today. Many are healthy while others lack access to the vital health services and education they need to grow and thrive.  The leading growing issues include but are not limited to complications leading to pregnancy and childbirth, access to sexual and reproductive health services, gender-based violence and the over 2 million adolescents who are living with HIV. In order to ensure young people can transition well from youth to adulthood, these issues must be adequately addressed.

The renewed Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health, set to be launched in September 2015, is a roadmap for ending all preventable deaths of women, children, and adolescents by 2030 and improving their overall health and well-being, and builds upon the 2010-2015 Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched by the UN Secretary-General. The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) has been organizing consultations to effectively inform a renewed strategy. Central to this conversation are the voices of adolescents and young people themselves.

Yesterday, we had an engaging conversation with youth and thought leaders addressing global priorities for adolescent health. The discussion included an amazing group of panelists including, Cecilia Garcia, Founder of Espolea and board member for PMNCH, Patrick Mwesigye from AfriYAN and Laura Laski, Chief of UNFPA’s Sexual and Reproductive health branch. The panelists candidly shared the challenges adolescents face in accessing health services, primarily including access to comprehensive sexuality education and SRHR health services. Opportunities related to improving adolescent health were also discussed. Adolescents are being engaged through working groups and various programs including one led by UNFPA in India and a second one in Argentina called program Sumar. There was an overwhelming agreement among the panelists that adolescents themselves must be involved in the conversation. Cecilia and Patrick both urged those watching to participate in the conversation online as well as to rally their national governments and other stakeholders to commit to prioritizing adolescent health and engaging youth in the post-2015 agenda.

Watch the Hangout

You can also read our Storify recap here.

Do you want your questions for adolescent health answered? Join the conversation!

It’s Time to Build Bridges to End Female Genital Mutilation!

Part of the panel, with the advertisement in the background saying, “The Clitoris is a Gift”

Today at the International Confederation of Midwives Congress in Prague, I had the great opportunity to attend a session featuring inspirational leaders who are actively combating female genital mutilation (FGM).

Comfort Momoh, MBE, Middlesex University, moderated the session and opened by informing the audience of what female genital mutilation is.

FGM is the partial or total removal of female genitalia and is a violation of human rights.

FGM is practiced in 28-30 countries in Africa, but also in other countries like Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of Iraq. FGM is also a phenomenon present in Europe and North America. Comfort Momoh explained that in the United Kingdom, it is estimated that about 66 thousand women have undergone FGM and that 22 thousand girls under the age of 15 are at risk for FGM.

It was quick

It was quick, but in some ways I resent this.
This thing that ruined my life happend in just a few painful moments.
It angers me. It angers me that my mother chose to take me to the cutter.
It angers me that she used a dirty blade.
It angers me that my sister died in the circumcicer’s home.
It angers me that nobody thinks it was wrong.
It angers me that cutters are allowed to mutilate young girls.
FGM is against my human right. 

This poem was written by a Sudanese woman and shared by Joy Clarke, FGM Lead Specialist Midwife at Whittington Hospital, United Kingdom. FGM is violence. It is a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights, and FGM stays with you for the rest of your life.

“I don’t remember when it was done, but my teens were really hard! My period gave me a lot of pain. Now I’m pregnant and I’ve been informed that there will be problems during childbirth, so I made a decision to have an operation. Now I know I will have a safe birth.”

– voice of a young woman shared by Joy Clarke

Women who have been subjected to FGM suffer from pain when urinating, pain during menstruation, complications during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological effects.

Leyla Hussein, FGM Activst and Co-Founder of Daughters of Eve & Dahlia’s Project, shared her experience as a FGM survivor, as a psycho-therapist and as an activist. “When we speak about FGM we think about physical scars, but forget the psychological aspect. Therapy gives women a safe space to explore their options.”

“I want to keep it real with you. Do not use the words culture or relition when talking about FGM. FGM is violence against women and child abuse. We need to break down patriarchal structures.” Leyla Hussein continued to speak about the linkages between FGM and other forms of violence against women, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.

“When someone cuts off your flesh, a punch is not going to be a big deal.”

– a woman subjected to FGM about domestic violence.

“Finally the world is waking up!” said Jane Ellison, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health UK, in her video message. She spoke about the work that is being undertaken in the UK, where health professionals are coming together to protect girls and are advocating for action to be taken by policy-makers. “We must work together to make progress and we must keep working at it. We don’t want our girls to be cut or mutilated.”

What midwives can do!

Several of the speakers were midwives themselves, and they highlighted the important role that midwives have in leading the way to combating FGM. They also showed the instrumental role that midwives have played to lead the campaign to end FGM in the UK and elsewhere.

Leyla Hussein underscored the importance of midwives, as they are often the first health professionals to examine them. “FGM is one of the worst forms of violence a woman and child can experience. Midwives need to give these girls safe spaces!”

Midwives have an essential role in meeting women and providing non-judgemental care. They also have the possibilities to identify girls at risk and provide essential education to prevent FGM. Joy Clarke added her point of view on what midwives can do to strengthen women’s rights.

Lindsey Ahmet, Midwife and Senior Lecturer at Middlesex University, spoke about the midwifery curriculum in the UK, where FGM is an increasingly hot topic, yet still not a mandatory field for students. She said that midwifery students need the appropriate support to understand and deal with the topic of FGM, as some may be cut themselves. Ahmet also pressed for the importance of bridging the gap between social work, law and other fields to effectively combat FGM.

How we can build bridges!

Jane Ellison encouraged all of us to be a part of building bridges to safeguard our children and dispell myths related to FGM. We can all take action to break the silence!

Here are three things you can do:

  • Get informed! Learn more about FGM at WHO, ICM, UNFPA and Equality Now. Find out if any community groups are in place in your area and join it.
  • Inform others. Talk about it with colleagues and friends, and join the online advocacy efforts using #EndFGM.
  • Join the End FGM/C Social Change Campaign and encourage the leaders of your country to make investments to end female genital mutilation!
Efua Dorkenoo, Programme Director for End FGM/C Social Change Campaign speaks at ICM 2014
Efua Dorkenoo, Programme Director for End FGM/C Social Change Campaign speaks at ICM 2014

Harmful Traditional Practices: A Great Barrier to Women’s Empowerment

Harmful traditional practices (HTPs) exist in many different forms. These traditions reflect norms of care and behavior based on age, life stage, gender, and social class. While many traditions promote social cohesion and unity, others wear down the physical and psychological health and integrity of individuals, especially women and girls. Some of the major HTPs practiced in Africa include female genital mutilation (FGM), early/child marriage and son preference. These have received global attention due to their severe and negative impact on the health and well-being of girls. Efforts to alter or eradicate these practices are often met with suspicion or hostility from those communities practicing them, particularly when efforts originate from outside the community.

Infographic c/o Plan International
Infographic c/o Plan International

According to the World Health Organization, female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, is practiced in 28 African countries. Cutting ranges from removal of the clitoral hood to its most extreme form, infibulation, involving removal of the clitoris as well as some or all of the labia minora. The labia majora are then sealed, leaving only a small opening to allow the flow of urine and menstrual blood. Infibulation is practiced predominantly in Somalia, the Sudan, and Djibouti as well as in some parts of Ethiopia and Egypt.

Between 100 million to 132 million girls and women now living have undergone genital cutting.

In some communities, FGM marks an important rite of passage into womanhood, in others it’s believed to guarantee virginity, curb female sexual desires, maintain hygiene, prevent promiscuity, and increase fertility. In most cases FGM is performed without anesthesia and one instrument is shared among all girls who are being circumcised at that particular time. This results into such consequences as sickness or death due to infection, hemorrhage, tetanus, or blood poisoning.

Unfortunately, many women are not aware that the health problems they experience later in life are FGM related and, as a result, problems go unreported. For women and girls, the distress of the procedure can cause long-lasting psychological and physical scars such as:

  • Obstetric fistula
  • C-sections
  • Tearing
  • Menstrual problems
  • Painful sexual intercourse
  • Repeated FGM due to unsuccessful healing
  • Psychological trauma
  • Infertility
  • Prolonged labor and complications in delivery
Infographic c/o Girls Not Brides
Infographic c/o Girls Not Brides

Child marriage is another major HTP in Africa. In many cultures, the tradition of marrying girls at a young age, often to older men, is very common. In such marriages, girls have little to no power and sense of self-determination. Those who marry early cannot stay in school and often have little motivation or family planning ability. They are deprived of their sexual reproductive health and rights. Some of these cultures believe early marriage guarantees a long period of fertility and that child brides may need a smaller dowry.

Females’ age at marriage is slowly dropping in Sub-Saharan Africa as young virgins, considered less likely to be infected with HIV/AIDS, are sought as child brides. Early/child marriage and childbearing are closely linked to low educational attainment, causing severe consequences for the health of both the mothers and their babies. For example, babies born to young mothers are up to 80 percent more likely to die within their first year of life than are babies born to mothers ages 20 to 29. Similarly, maternal mortality rates are twice as high for women ages 15 to 19 compared to those ages 20 to 29.

Early marriage is an increasing focus of reform for governments throughout Africa. While laws outlining minimum ages for marriage have been enacted in some countries, the laws often fail to prevent forced marriages of the very young. Legal limits on age at marriage typically apply only to unions lacking parental consent; however, marriages arranged by parents can involve children well below a country’s legal minimum age. This clearly shows that despite laws and policies being in place, implementation is still far much behind.

Preference for sons is still a powerful tradition that results in neglect, deprivation, and discriminatory treatment of daughters to the damage of their physical and mental health as well as female infanticide and prenatal sex selection. Son preference adversely affects girls through inequitable allocation of food, education, and health care. Male preference begins early in life. Parents with fewer resources may feel that it is more important for male children to survive and be educated as they will carry the family name. Girls in such settings are often fed after boys and receive food of lower nutritional value. Despite significant increases in the number of women who have attained at least seven years of education, there are far fewer females than males enrolled in secondary schools in many countries. This disparity between males’ and females’ access to education leaves women in lifelong positions of economic and social disadvantage.

Cultural traditions are powerful, and only careful efforts will alter or eliminate them.

Efforts to change harmful traditions are most effective when they originate within the culture that practices them. It requires the cooperation and understanding of community leaders, policy makers, and the people who have experienced or witnessed hardships these practices cause. Women’s groups, human rights activists, governments and international organizations must work together with traditional and religious leaders to most effectively advocate against such practices.

Also, community education is very important in increasing public awareness of the negative consequences of these practices and changing societal norms. Public education campaigns should be encouraged as they make open discussion of these practices more acceptable.

Governments, civil society organizations and the international community must put extra efforts towards the following:

  • Eliminating all forms of discrimination against the girl child and the root causes of son preference;
  • Increasing public awareness of the value of the girl child and concurrently strengthening the girl child’s self-image, self-esteem and status;
  • Improving the welfare of the girl child, especially in regard to health, nutrition and education;
  • Enforcing and creating laws that condemn harmful practices.
Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons
Image c/o Flickr Creative Commons

More Girls’ Globe articles on harmful traditional practices:

Female Genital Mutilation

Child Marriage

Son Preference

Cover image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

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Mapping FGM/C

To follow-up on our February theme, female genital mutilation/cutting, Girls’ Globe would like to show some infographics that we came across. The below map by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme against FGM/C shows the progress being made in eliminating female genital mutilation/cutting.

The map shows the prevalence of FGM/C among women aged 15-49, with the highest rates (90-100 %) in Egypt, Djibouti, Somalia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. However, rates are dropping. In Egypt rates dropped over 6 % in 8 years. This isn’t a lot, but the numbers are a few years old. What seems hopeful is the change between generations. Young women, aged 15-19, in Egypt are less likely to be mutilated/cut than women aged 40-44. This does indicate that the trend is going in the right direction, but it also shows that we are far from done with fighting this life-threatening practice.

Did you see Amnesty’s video on FGM/C? The video highlights the spread of FGM/C throughout the world. It is not only practiced in the countries showed on the above map. The graph above also indicates a few countries where FGM/C is practiced among immigrant communities, including Sweden and Norway, two of the countries with the highest gender equality in the world.

No matter where you live, we all have a part to play in creating awareness of the dangerous consequences of this practice.

Below is a video about the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme. It is a few years old, but it highlights the challenges as well as the progress being made.

During the past two weeks the UN Commission on the Status of Women has taken place in New York City, and a first-ever resolution on eliminating FGM/C has been discussed by all UN Member States. Let us await the results during the coming days, and hope that our leaders take the right decision to prioritize the lives of girls and women.