FGM: Focusing on Girls’ Minds

Image//Ron Gelok

Image//Ron Gelok

There is power in words. Because words make meaning and can have concrete, practical effects on people’s lives: they can liberate or denigrate. There’s a reason why it’s more appropriate, for example, to refer to women who have endured violence as ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’. Or why it’s more correct to refer to a person in a wheelchair, not as ‘disabled’, but as a person with a disability. It gets even trickier with words such as ‘wog’, when who does the calling or the naming (and in what context), really does matter. With language, context is everything.

This is one of the challenges with the ‘FGM’ (female genital mutilation) acronym. The use of the term ‘mutilation’ is internationally recognised and is present in our Australian laws. From a legal and advocacy perspective, ‘mutilation’ makes sense insofar as reinforcing the gravity of practice that is a gender-based violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. However, as much as ‘mutilation’ can persuade, highlight and argue the case, it can equally polarise, stigmatise and traumatise.

The recent national NETFA forum hosted by MCWH found that appropriate language-use was overwhelmingly cited by attendees as the one take-away message from the forum. Many attendees agreed that using words such as ‘cutting’ or ‘circumcision’ are more respectful. International best practice also shows that using a community development approach is key to preventing female circumcision and by building community trust and respect we can better engage practising communities for prevention. This approach also means that we take into account all women’s experiences of female circumcision, and not just those that are the loudest, or those that we might agree with.

These are some of the reasons why the UN secretary general, Ban Ki Moon recently suggested that FGM should stand for ‘Finally Girls Matter’, or ‘Focus on Girls Minds’. He states that it’s time to shift our focus to education, not mutilation. This might also mean educating ourselves about appropriate language in our research, policy, advocacy and community work.  Using different language in different contexts and circumstances doesn’t mean taking female circumcision any less seriously, but rather strengthening our efforts to end the practice. It might mean using ‘mutilation’ at the policy table, at other times it might not. We need to listen to the diversity of women’s experiences and speak and act accordingly.

One voice

Jessica Lea DFID flickrPreventing the Practice of FGM/C in Primary Schools. Image by Jessica Lea/UK DFID

We’ve all been guilty of it: voicing our dissatisfaction and anger at the things that are unfair and unjust and then proceeding to do nothing about them. Or, perhaps worse, trying to do something about them in a way that turns out to subvert, undermine or undo some of the good work already being done to fix the problem.

An issue such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is something that usually incites feelings of horror and anger among those not affected directly by the practice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Injustices, particularly those that are an abuse of human rights, need loud and visible activism. But it’s how we go about acting on our words that really counts, especially when our actions impact on people experiencing those abuses. When the issue is as complex as FGM/C, it would be wise to do some homework and find out about what is being, and could be, done to prevent and eradicate the practice.

The most recent International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM marked 13 years of activism and campaigning to ensure that FGM/C remains on the global agenda. During this time, in Australia and internationally, there have been countless initiatives that, together, have laid a solid foundation for generational change. Much of what we know now has been the result of the tireless efforts of women advocates from communities where FGM/C is practiced, community organisations, policy makers, governments and legal institutions around the world. A truly collaborative affair.

While there is still much work to be done, especially in countries of migration like ours, the international evidence suggests that we are still in a good position to know what can work in helping to prevent the practice. Involving the whole community and fostering women’s leadership are both key markers of success and this includes acknowledging the huge amount of prevention work already being done, often quietly and modestly, within the communities where FGM/C exists.

Whether you call it ‘being on the same page’ or ‘singing off the same song sheet’, it takes a united stance to ensure that change does happen. The National Standards Framework for FGM/C-related Educational Resources is one such song sheet, highlighting the best resources currently available for community education. Many of the resources have been developed by and in collaboration with women and their communities, so we can confidently use them as a platform for change, without hitting too many wrong notes along the way.

Funding for Multicultural Centre to support FGM/C awareness


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).

Senator the Hon. Michaelia Cash at the National Symposium for Best Practice in FGM/C Education and Prevention, pictured here with (left to right) Joumanah El Matrah (AMWCHR), Juliana Nkrumah (AWAU), Adele Murdolo (MCWH) and Vivienne Strong (NSWFGM).

Today marks Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation Day. The Australian Government has taken this opportunity to announce funding of more than $265,000 for MCWH to deliver the National Education Toolkit for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) Awareness (NETFA) project over the next two years.

Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator the Hon Michaelia Cash said that the Australian Government is strongly opposed to harmful FGM/C practices and is committed to taking strong action at both the domestic and international level.

Senator Cash opened the National Symposium for Best Practice in FGM/C Prevention and Education last August and has been a strong advocate on this issue.

“The work of the Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health is very important in supporting our community to understand the long term health effects of this harmful practice,” Minister Cash said.

“Through the NETFA project we will see a national centralised mechanism for networking and sharing expertise between FGM service providers throughout Australia.”

Minister Cash said the development of consistent national resources will increase awareness of FGM/C, support victims to seek help and change attitudes to end this harmful practice.

“We know that effective FGM prevention strategies can take several generations and that coordination is crucial,” Minister Cash said.

“That is why it is so important that we continue to support projects such as NETFA, and take a zero tolerance approach to Female Genital Mutilation in Australia.”

The project aligns with the Second Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, which includes a specific commitment to work with Australia’s culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

FGM/C is recognised internationally as a harmful practice and a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

The Government currently supports Australians affected by FGM/C overseas and provides information for Australian travellers on FGM/C laws, as well as training materials for consular officers posted overseas to assist them support victims and ensure reporting of possible cases.

All states and territories in Australia have enacted legislation that makes it a criminal offence to perform FGM/C, and to remove a child from the state or territory in which they live for the purpose of performing FGM/C. The maximum penalties range from 7 to 21 years imprisonment.

MCWH is thrilled that it can continue the national network of FGM/C service providers, build on the success of the National Education Toolkit for FGM/C Awareness and develop more national resources to reach and support women and communities across Australia about this important issue.

To learn more about FGM/C, access national resources and find out about the good work that is already happening around Australia, go to: www.netfa.com.au


Media Release: Sharing Our Strengths National Symposium on Best Practice Approaches to the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

There is no single approach to eliminate female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), but there are many approaches that do work best to end the practice.  This is the message at the core of the ‘Sharing Our Strengths’ symposium being held today.

Multicultural Centre for Women’s Health (MCWH) and Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights have worked together to stage the ‘Sharing Our Strengths’ symposium, a gathering of best practice approaches to FGM/C prevention.

Executive Director of MCWH, Dr Adele Murdolo said that it is also important to recognise the work being conducted around Australia to support the abandonment of the practice.

‘Many of these programs, some of which have been running for over 16 years, are community based and conducted by women from the communities most affected by FGM/C.’

Dr Murdolo said that women affected by FGM/C, as the group most directly impacted by the practice, need to recognised as leaders and change agents.

‘We only seem to hear about stories that are designed to make us feel us shocked, angry or pity, but such sentiments don’t and won’t do anything to prevent and stop the practice.’

Dr Murdolo said many of the speakers at the symposium are working at the front-line of community awareness and education and already demonstrate international best practice approaches to preventing the practice.

‘The international evidence on FGM/C prevention is clear: it’s essential that women most affected by FGM/C lead the charge to bring about its demise, but they can’t do it alone.  All communities and all levels of government need to support women’s leadership efforts in this area.’

Minister Cash will be launching MCWH’s National Education Toolkit for FGM/C Prevention at the Symposium.

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.