Today we celebrate International Day of the Girl (“Invest in girls’ rights: our leadership, our wellbeing”) and Black History Month (“Saluting our Sisters”). Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director at the Foundation for Women’s Health Research and Development (FORWARD UK) and Alya Harding, Campaign Officer at Send My Friend to School, are honouring the legacy of Efua Dorkenoo OBE. Mama Efua as she was affectionately called founded FORWARD in 1983 and helped bring global attention to female genital mutilation (FGM), including the adoption by World Health Organization member states of the first World Health Assembly on Harmful Traditional Practices.

Efua Dorkenoo OBE (centre) and Adwoa Kwateng (FORWARD) with Berhane Ras-Work, Founding President of the Inter-Africa Committee on Traditional Practices at the ‘DECLARATION: on the Terminology FGM’ in Mali, 2005. 

What is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)?

FGM is a harmful practice and is a violation of human rights. Sometimes, FGM can be referred to as ‘circumcision’ or cutting which involves the deliberate removal of the external female genitalia totally or partially, or any type of injury to the genitalia for non-medial reasons. FGM is usually performed during infancy to the age of 15, therefore does not require consent. In some cases, young women are pressured into the practice due to family honour and marriageability. Its is currently estimated that over 200 million women and girls are living with the consequences of FGM.

FOWARD’s legacy in accelerating campaigning against FGM 

Efua Dorkenoo OBE, born in Ghana, started her journey campaigning against FGM after witnessing the traumatic delivery of a woman in labour in Sheffield while working as a nurse. This experience ignited Efua’s passion and lifelong commitment to inspire a movement to end the practice of FGM. The journey began in her kitchen providing safe spaces for women to discuss FGM and other interconnected issues. One woman became many women. Efua’s commitment, guidance and ability to engage women, knock on doors and get the attention of decision-makers who saw FGM as merely an African issue has highly influenced the FGM discourse today. 

For over 35 years, FORWARD’s work has helped put FGM on the local, national and global agenda. In the early years of the organisation, FORWARD’s advocacy helped shape the UK’s first legislation on FGM (the Female Genital Circumcision Act 1985) and related FGM policies on health and child protection. A major part of FORWARD’s legacy has been the collaborative projects with organisations in the UK and Africa, providing technical support, research evidence and community engagement approaches to tackle social norms (such as womanhood, purity, family honour, aesthetics) that fuel FGM. Today, FORWARD’s work on FGM has helped galvanise a community of change makers, activists, and organisations who continue to fight for an end to FGM. These include Daughters of Eve, Orchid Project – 28 Too Many, the Girl Generation and End FGM European Network, a network now with over 39 members.

“Invest in girls’ rights: our leadership, our wellbeing” 

In order to sustain the movement to end FGM, we must invest in girls, especially girls affected by FGM. In FORWARD’s most recent report, ‘FGM in Europe: Exploring young African diaspora Women’s views, experiences and activisms’, participants noted:

  •  Low levels of representation of young women and girls from affected communities in ‘global’ conversations on FGM
  • The multi-faceted ways in which trauma caused by FGM could impact on survivors sharing their stories 
  • How FGM is still regarded as a taboo topic and has created barriers for discussion within communities.

So, with this in mind, how do we invest in girls’ rights and resilience in a way that enables them to lead change sustainably? 

Women and girls from affected communities may have some awareness of the narrative and agenda at international level, but it is often developed in a top-down approach, pushed onto them, and fails to show the levels of sensitivity required to tackle some of the trauma as well as cultural and religious beliefs that fuel the practice at community level. In order to produce sustainable collaborative partnerships, decision-makers and INGOs must make space for girls affected by FGM as they act as a bridge for world-wide advocacy. They must also acknowledge the psychological consequences of the practice by investing in counselling and safe spaces, engage wider audiences, and work alongside communities to understand the ways in which language has further alienated them from the FGM discourse. To “Invest in girls’ rights: our leadership, our wellbeing” is to ensure that girls can lead with the resources, dignity and the support of their communities in the fight to end FGM.

To learn more about FORWARD’s legacy, check out their film #BlackHistoryMonth: Celebrating 35+ Years of FORWARD Milestones!