Five things we learnt about preventing FGM/C

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

From left-right: Maria Osman, Juliana Nikrumah AM, Amina Mohamud Warsame, Wudad Salim, Sasha Sarago

The third NETFA Forum, Foundations for Change in Melbourne gathered together a group of amazing women to discuss women’s rights, health and prevention of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). For those of you who couldn’t make it, we’ve put together a list of five key messages that we took away from the event:

1. It’s about gender equality
FGM/C is a challenging issue to talk about because it varies across cultures, countries and migration contexts. The reasons for practising it are diverse. Despite this, we can see some common underlying factors, in particular gender discrimination and gender stereotypes. Any response or attempt to address FGM/C must focus on these underlying issues. Panellists spoke about how FGM/C is often ‘siloed’ as an ‘African women’s issue’, preventing us from seeing it as an issue of gender inequality. Speakers advocated for working within a human rights framework when doing prevention work – this can highlight the lived, everyday injustices experienced by women affected by FGM/C, including forms of gendered health inequality. When addressing FGM/C, all agreed that having an intersectional understanding of gender equality was critical and acknowledging that racism informs the debate.

2. It’s about strengthening our health systems
Immigrant women and girls affected by FGM/C are often referred to as ‘at risk’ or ‘vulnerable’, when it is often more accurate to say that they are made vulnerable or have been placed at risk by policies, systems and institutions. Many strategies often point to the need to build the capacity of health professionals with less attention paid to the need to strengthen the health system itself. The forum devoted a lot of time to discussing the structural and social factors that impact on immigrant women’s and girls’ unequal access to sexual and  reproductive health services and how services can better respond to these inequities. A key factor to achieving equity is the work being carried out by bilingual workers. Forum participants highlighted the need to value the skilled and complex work of the bilingual educators in the Family and Reproductive Rights Education Program (FARREP) in Victoria. Ultimately, strengthening our health systems will help women and girls exercise more control in, as well as be more informed about, the type of care they receive.

3. It’s not simply a ‘cultural’ issue.
There is now widespread agreement that FGM/C cannot be justified by cultural or religious reasons. However, when FGM/C is compared to female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) such as labiaplasty it is often labelled a ‘cultural’ issue whereas the latter is considered to be a medical one. As a result, FCGS is not nearly as scrutinised. Panellists spoke about the similarities and differences between both procedures, arguing that both involve socialisation and shame relating to women’s bodies. Both become accepted as ‘normal’ in different contexts. To be able to view both practices as such gave us a more nuanced understanding of ‘culture’.  At the same time, it was noted that there are some important differences, with much discussion on how FGCS and comparisons with FGM/C can depoliticise advocacy work being conducted to prevent FGM/C. For children who are subjected to FGM/C there is little to no choice and therefore cannot be viewed in the same way as women choosing to have either procedure later in life. The idea of ‘choice’ here is a complex one. Despite this, there is merit in understanding both practices as not simply or only cultural, but as gendered practices that impact on women’s mental health and wellbeing.

4. It’s important that women and girls from FGM/C affected communities have an equal voice
‘Nothing about us without us’ was the idea carried on from our last forum with the idea following on that  all work relating to FGM/C prevention should be carried out with the full and direct participation of women and girls from FGM/C affected communities. An effective multisectoral response needs to ensure that affected communities are at the forefront of efforts. The speakers discussed the many ways that law enforcers, educators and advocates can work together with communities to prevent FGM/C. This included creating a space where knowledge can be shared, again strengthening our existing networks.

5. It’s a human rights issue
FGM/C is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights of women and girls. Human rights are a precondition for social justice and as a party to both the CEDAW and Beijing Platform for Action, Australia has committed itself to being a society that supports equal rights for all women and men. However, in a migration country such as Australia, human rights particularly in relation to FGM/C can be poorly understood. There was much discussion on how we, as workers, can better engage with international human rights standards for more effective advocacy. While acknowledging ‘humanity as the common denominator’, international keynote speaker Amina Mohamed Warsame invited us to understand human rights as ‘a question of opportunities’ and that immigrant women need to be given both the rights and resources to achieve transformational change.

Comparing complexities

Image via:

Image via:

It’s not difficult to see why female genital cosmetic surgery (FGCS) is often drawn into comparisons with female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). The World Health Organisation defines FGM/C as all procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. So a procedure such as labiaplasty, for example, which is designed to reduce the size of the inner lips (labia minora) of the vulva could theoretically be included in the WHO definition.

But like almost all things theoretical, the issue of both FGCS and FGM/C are far more complex in practice. Unlike FGCS, FGM/C is recognised internationally as a serious violation of the human rights of women and girls. However, this is not the same thing as saying that FGCS is not just as harmful. Rather, it highlights that FGM/C has proven harmful enough to women and girls to warrant an international and legal response.

The global efforts to combat FGM/C should give us all pause for reflection on all practices that aim to alter any part of a women’s body. While it’s important to focus on what’s being physically done to women’s genitals, it’s just as important to consider the context in which any procedure is being conducted. If we’re talking about labias especially, it’s not only a matter of the medical and cultural (and let’s not forget, Australians have a culture too), it’s also about what’s gendered.

What is driving the increasing number of women in Western countries, including Australia, to choose to have FCGS? If women are unhappy with how their vagina looks, we to need to examine the factors that have given rise to women not feeling ‘normal’. While pornography, fashion and the media have been cited as the main culprits, there has been little discussion about how to prevent women feeling anxious and abnormal about their genitals in the first place. This is where a comparison with FGM/C is helpful: there is already much we know about best practice in FGM/C education and prevention that can contribute to all women and girls feeling empowered.

As the evidence on FGM/C prevention programs have shown, educating women and girls about anatomy and genital diversity is a good place to begin. Health professionals also have a responsibility to educate themselves about the issues that may impact women and girls feeling anxious about their bodies, including issues affecting immigrant and refugee women and those who have undergone or at risk of FGM/C.

As we know from our work in women’s health, unhealthy, risky and harmful practices that primarily affect women can be prevented by acknowledging the diversity of women’s experiences. Any comparison of different ‘cultural’ practices should begin from this common understanding.

If you’d like to do your part in building and supporting women’s capacity to enact change, then you should register for our upcoming NETFA Forum: Sharing Our Strengths Symposium here.

NETFA Forum 2016


This month we had the good fortune of spending a day surrounded by a group of amazing women who know a great deal about women’s rights, health and female circumcision. On International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, MCWH’s NETFA Forum brought together people from across Australia to consider some key questions and talk about how communities and Australian state and federal governments are progressing with this important women’s health issue.

Discussion started with an overview of the international context, noting that activism around female circumcision, mostly led by women, has taken place for many years across the world. We have much to learn from the past and the guidance of activist groups like the NAFIS Network who show us how best practice has been implemented on the ground.

International best practice requires us to ask who is around the table when we talk about female circumcision. There was a clear consensus at the forum that women from practising communities should be prominently represented around the decision-making table, and their strong, clear, informed voices must be heard nationally and internationally.

Panel discussion covered the complex questions of legislation and data, noting that while legislation is crucial, it can lead to stigmatisation and discrimination in countries of migration. As the recent NSW case has shown, comprehensive and broad reaching community education must be available to all members of practising communities, for effective cultural change to take place.

Research too is a problematic beast, sometimes masking as much as it reveals, so data, research and evidence must be collected, analysed and used with sophistication and wisdom. A recent report indicated that worldwide, the number of circumcised girls and women is 70 million higher than previously thought. However, the increase does not mean the practice is growing: rather, it reflects that Indonesia now reports nationally representative data.

A strong message throughout the forum related to the appropriate use of terminology.  In Australia and internationally the term ‘mutilation’ is used in legislation and policy to reinforce the gravity of this gender-based human rights violation. However, forum participants strongly suggested that the term, ‘mutilation’ can be denigrating and harmful to women and may not accurately convey the different ways women view the practice, let alone the many words in a range of languages that signify cutting practices. Participants suggested that we use terminology appropriate to the context, which might include using different terminology at different times.

MCWH is honoured to have been part of this important national conversation, bringing together national experts and taking a woman-led and respectful approach to complex debate. The symposium proceedings will be published and available soon on the NETFA website.

(L-R) Ms Juliana Nkrumah AM, Ms Maria Osman, Dr Carol Kaplanian

(L-R) Ms Juliana Nkrumah AM, Ms Maria Osman, Dr Carol Kaplanian

Ms Maria Osman, Ms Linda George, Dr Virginia Dods, Mmaskepe Sejoe

Ms Maria Osman, Ms Linda George, Dr Virginia Dods, Mmaskepe Sejoe

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:


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.