In February 2012, I attended my very first FGM conference hosted by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) and the Royal College of Gynaecologist (RCOG).
It was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life, as I sat and listened to ‘experts’ telling me how I should feel and watching incidences of FGM (a term that I continue to despise). Fast forward to 2016, and I am one of the RCM’s biggest supporters. Why? They put the spotlight on the ‘cruel cut’ of FGM/C and probably changed and saved the lives of thousands of girls and women world-wide.
In 2013, the RCM published Tackling FGM in the UK – with Intercollegiate recommendations for identifying, recording and reporting it. This was the first report to my knowledge that forced policy makers in government and healthcare institutions to take note of another injustice against girls and women. The RCM made nine recommendations to tackle FGM/C in the UK above all to call it child abuse, as well as to empower and support affected girls and young women (both those at risk and survivors) and to implement awareness campaigns.
It is interesting to see, in my opinion, what has been achieved following their recommendations. Campaigning to end FGM/C began over 30 years ago and yet it took until when this report came out for things to change, both positively and negatively.
The Wild West
It has been overwhelming to see the urgent and increased momentum of FGM/C awareness; the government enhanced existing laws by calling it child abuse and with mandatory reporting and training for registered professionals, including in schools and health institutions, as well as putting the care of mothers who had undergone FGM/C at the top of their agenda--all good things. The flip side, however, is that because the government provide funding, existing and new organisations have added ‘tackling FGM/C’ to their agenda, which has assisted the momentum of raising awareness in a very untargeted and at times conflicting way with a ‘one size fits all’ messaging approach. This, in my view, is turning the campaign into ‘the wild west’--for want of a better description--as various individuals and organisations vie to become leaders in this space or ‘industry’, as I recently heard it being called. The Intercollegiate report became the humble and at times forgotten hero, although it was the basis for government action and set in motion UK government funding streams here and elsewhere.
Over the last two years, out of curiosity and my desire to find a way to contribute to the campaign and work that is being done, I have attended and sat through various meetings, launches and committees. A few allowed me to contribute but, the majority didn’t provide the opportunity. I left some of these events feeling empty, demotivated and angry. 30 years of campaigning and still going around in circles! So much funding has been given to these organisations which form part of the ‘new industry’ providing them with an opportunity to create effective, innovative proposals and outputs. I am not the voice or opinion of all survivors of FGM/C, but I know I speak and think for those like me who want to be empowered despite their experience, a point which I feel has been lost at times in the melee of the various campaigns.
The awareness raising appears to have been led predominately by mainstream media which is great, because they have a huge platform and reach to share the “End FGM/C” message. Disappointingly, there are at times sensationalised stories which have reached audiences that will be horrified in one moment and will forget the real issue and impact of FGM/C in the next. There has been limited action to empower girls and women to seek help and advice and thus isolates those who the campaign was designed to help.
Resources in many delivery formats have been created for GP's, nurses, midwives, and other health care professionals, teachers, the police, researchers and those whose role and responsibility include interaction with a girl or woman at risk or who has undergone FGM/C. But in my research, there were few resources to empower that girl or woman to stand up to the act of FGM/C for themselves, nor were there appropriate ones for family members and communities. A million policies can be created or put in place, but until tactics are changed to really empower girls and women at risk, or already affected, to stand up to FGM/C, then change will be extremely slow in coming.
Campaigning success should be evaluated
Behaviour change is essentially what the FGM/C campaign is about, so every organisation doing work in this space has a responsibility to include evaluation of whether behaviour change has occurred as an element of their campaign activity
Caring for survivors
Recently I was referred to an organisation commissioned to provide psychological services for FGM/C survivors. It took several calls and a few emails before I got a response, only to be told that there was a waiting list of 24 weeks (half a year) to see a therapist. However, the same organisation offered to recommend a therapist to see me privately if I could pay and within 7 days I had my first session. Knowing that I couldn't access the free service when I needed caused me extreme anxiety. I felt that I simply couldn't wait half a year as I was already on the edge, so I made the decision to go private, because it was either I paid, or I would fall into that dark space that I have been struggling to claw my way out of. It is disappointing that the services which should be available for individuals like me was difficult to access. A month on and I am glad that I made that investment in myself. But it makes me wonder about my other sisters who need immediate help and cannot get it. What do they do if they can't access free services or do not have personal funds for a private alternative.
What should happen next?
If I could make an immediate change in the UK, I would recommend that:
- We should never forget that FGM is part of a bigger problem that should always be seen within the wider context of sexual violence against girls
- Future campaigns should not adopt the one size fits all approach. The way to do this will be for organisations funded by the government to provide a strategy that clearly outlines the target audience and type of messaging. This will avoid duplication and inconsistent messages.
- Focus on empowering affected girls and women to access services and information, by helping individuals to help themselves
- Training healthcare professionals and teachers, FGM/C should be considered within the context of sexual violence
- Training should be delivered by accredited organisations/specialists.
- There needs to be a national strategy that promotes collaboration and coordination of messages directed at the right audiences. It would help to monitor and evaluate the outputs of organisations funded by the government
I believe that if the tactics are changed and the messages, messengers and those targeted are properly matched, we will get better results.
Policies and laws are in place. Now more emphasis is needed on empowering the true heroines that this campaign was created for, so they can break the cycle for themselves, their family, friends and other women.
Jay Kamara-Frederick is an award winning marketing strategist, speaker and commenter on FGM/C based in London. She is the founder of Jongoh & Co a boutique marketing company and the founder of S.K.I.M (Sister’s keeping it moving) a network for girls and women affected by sexual violence.