Gemma Munday has been campaigning on gender issues for several years. As well as working for Restless Development, she volunteers with Youth for Change, advocating against FGM & Child Marriage.
3 letter acronyms are popular today, like OMG and LOL. But there is one acronym that isn’t being used enough…
FGM: Female Genital Mutilation.
This is a cultural practice that in involves a girl’s vagina being cut in different ways in a dangerous procedure. There are many misconceptions around FGM being performed for religious reasons, but there are no religious texts that mention it and it actually predates Christianity and Islam. The ancient belief is that when a woman’s vagina is cut, the desire to have sex is cut as well.
It is usually performed on girls from birth up to 15 years old. After girls and women have been cut, it’s often incredibly painful for them to have sex or give birth. FGM can cause many problems including painful periods, urination, infections, infertility and even death.
Many people think FGM is just an African issue. But they are wrong. It’s happening to girls all over the world. There are countries in the Middle East and Asia where it’s known to take place, but is under reported. It’s happening in the USA and across Europe. Even in the UK, where I live, it’s estimated there are 65,000 girls living with it or at risk. That’s not good enough. We need to be doing more to protect our girls.
We need change now. I am a volunteer with Youth For Change, a global movement of young people working together to end gender-based violence in their communities, especially focusing on ending FGM and child marriage.
We know ending FGM within our generation is possible. Young people are not only the generation most at risk from the practice, but they are also powerful at making change happen in their communities.
Muna Hassan, one of the UK Youth for Change volunteers, was part of the movement that gained over 230,000 signatures to the (then) Education Secretary Michael Gove, calling for him to remind schools of their duty to teach the risks of FGM.
She also told the Prime Minister at the time, David Cameron, to “grow a pair” on Newsnight, and isn’t afraid to discuss vaginas with anyone!
I also take inspiration from young people like Neema, a Youth for Change advocate in Tanzania who grew up in the Maasai tribe.
She says, “I asked my parents about FGM and they answered me ‘it is our culture and we must value it and adhere to it.’ They also stressed that you if have not undergone FGM, you will be regarded as a child despite your age. You will be stigmatized by your fellow community members.”
The Maasai community is strongly bound to its culture, so disregarding FGM is very difficult. Since Neema joined Youth for Change, she is able to speak to her community in their local dialect, having a conversation between peers rather than an outsider preaching at them, and honestly address people’s concerns. For example misconceptions about the clitoris “growing to the size of a football” if not removed.
Young people like Neema are trusted and able to interact with all kinds of community groups. They work hard to change perceptions. Let’s lead by their example.
We need to work across our communities – building relationships with parents, schools, health professionals, community leaders, support services and in partnership with other organisations.
As Youth for Change we deliver training with girls and boys, exploring the reasons behind FGM, as well as the health and human rights implications. We have built networks with young people and organisations across the country, and globally through our teams across the world. Ensuring young people are connected and their voices are heard.
But we can’t just focus on the most high risk areas in the UK. Girls living in low risk areas, who are under threat, are in danger of being missed. That is why we need a national approach. We need everyone in our communities to be aware that this is happening, and recognise that the most isolated need to be protected too.
Education is vital – and schools are key places where young people can be protected. That includes safeguarding training for all school staff on how to spot the signs, how to prevent cases from happening, and how to respond if a young person confides in them. But safeguarding is everyone’s business, and there are many who can help make a difference.