Sharing our Strengths: Where to from here for FGM/C prevention?

Our national Symposium was launched by Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash, pictured here with (left to right) Joumanah El Matrah (AMWCHR), Juliana Nkrumah (AWAU), Adele Murdolo (MCWH) and Vivienne Strong (NSWFGM).

Our national Symposium was launched by Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash, pictured here with (left to right) Joumanah El Matrah (AMWCHR), Juliana Nkrumah (AWAU), Adele Murdolo (MCWH) and Vivienne Strong (NSWFGM).


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.

The NETFA website, with FGM/C prevention resources for Australian bilingual health educators, is online now.

Redefining Sensational

Have you ever read a media article about female genital cutting and cringed at the way the article was written? You know, you get that ‘Oh no, they haven’t used the word “primitive” and “backward” in the same sentence again have they?!’ Feeling.

We’re told the media thrives on sensationalism and that’s why it’s common for news articles to push a line that will attract the most readers. Bums on seats and all that.
But aren’t we getting a bit tired of the same old line? Surely it is time to extend our FGC vocabulary a little and find out more about what else there is to know about a practice that affects an estimated 130 million women and girls globally. Isn’t it time to redefine sensational?

There is in fact so much more to learn about FGC: there is a world of promising prevention practices; different approaches across nations, villages and communities; of advocacy; culture change; and innovation in engaging men and young people in prevention of the practice. Activists and community development workers are working with communities across the world and contributing to the global evidence base about what works best, for whom, and in what context.

Alternative rites of passage (ARP) are said to play a key prevention role in the Kenyan context for example. The Kenyan women’s organisation, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, started ARP in 1996 as a program of counselling, training and education for girls, celebrated at the end with a ‘coming of age day’ of music, dancing and feasting. ARP has shown itself over time to be an effective strategy in a range of communities, provided the concept is understood and accepted locally by family and community decision-makers.

On a theoretical level, there are complex debates about how we understand and respond to FGC, raising critical questions about who speaks publicly about this issue, and the leadership role of women. If a determinant of FGC is gender inequity, then surely our efforts should promote the leadership of women who are affected by the practice. FGC activists and academics are thinking through these very questions: how does FGC relate to gender equity and what is the relationship of self-representation and self-advocacy by women to the prevention of the practice? And speaking of women, how might we support and harness women’s leadership in communities to meaningfully engage men and boys in prevention? What works and what makes things worse?

Other questions revolve around the more pedestrian issue of number-crunching: or determining exactly how many women in Australia are affected by FGC. Attempts have been made to come up with a figure, and we do now know the numbers of people who have migrated to Australia from countries where FGC is known to be practiced. But these data only draw half the picture because they don’t account for cultural and ethnic differences within countries, which in fact sends us looking in the wrong direction. Rigourous methodologies, incorporating number crunching with considered and knowledgeable community consultation, along with community-based research, are needed.

So, if discussions about media representations of, and theoretical frameworks about, FGC; women’s leadership; ARP and spokesperson programs; sharp number-crunching research; working with young women; and the engagement of men and boys in FGC prevention sound sensational to you, why not join us at our upcoming symposium. You can take part in a national conversation about where our community is in relation to FGC in 2014: beyond sensationalism to considered, sensible and grounded.

You can register for Sharing our Strengths Symposium here.

Our Voices: Filling the Gaps FGM Spokesperson Project


African Women Australia’s Melbourne-based FGM Spokespeople from left, Maria Ibrahim, Shadia Mohamed Aly, Nigisti Mulholland, Intesar Homed, Chamut Abebe Kifetew, Mariam Issa, with trainers Paula Abood and Juliana Nkrumah. (Wudad Salim present but not pictured).


This week MCWH was honoured to welcome African Women Australia (AWAU) to our Melbourne training room to conduct a component of their national FGM Spokesperson Project. Juliana Nkrumah and Paula Abood worked together with 7 Melbourne-based African women to frame and develop their own digital  stories, which will then be presented at the ‘Our Bodies, Our Voices, Our Lives’ national conference to be held in Sydney on 30 May. The women’s digital stories are a part of the larger Human Rights and FGM accredited course offered by AWAU, in partnership with NSW Tafe, South Western Sydney.

The Our Voices: Filling the Gaps FGM Spokesperson Project is funded by the Commonwealth Department of Health.

A model for FGM/C Community Education in Victoria

The Victorian FGM/C program, the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP), is under review. The aim of the review is to address a range of changes and challenges that have been identified over the 13 years of the program’s implementation.

MCWH commends the Department of Health’s commitment to FGM/C education and community engagement, and anticipates that the review outcomes will build the capacity of the program to better respond to the needs of women affected by FGM/C, their families and communities.

This is what we believe an effective and community-led FGM/C health promotion program will look like. Let us know what you think.