FORWARD was founded in 1983 by Efua Dorkenoo OBE, a biosocial scientist, researcher and nurse. While undertaking a midwifery course in the early seventies in Sheffield, Efua’s experience of seeing a young mother facing difficulties during childbirth due to FGM sparked her determination to take action.
This practice was later defined by the World Health Organisation as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons”.
This experience led Efua to research the practice and eventually to take action towards its elimination. FORWARD evolved from the Women’s Action Group for Female Excision and Infibulation (WAGFEI), a small group of UK-based women concerned about FGM. Efua coordinated the group between 1981 and 1983 under the auspices of the London-based international human rights organisation, Minority Rights Group (MRG). During this period WAGFEI made links with Africans fighting to eliminate the practice in their countries. Efua then travelled to several countries in Africa, gathering facts on the practice which were later collated into an MRG report on FGM providing tangible recommendations for future actions for the UK. The MRG report was circulated internationally, raising awareness and informing policy.
Three major outcomes resulted from the release of the report:
a) The facilitation of the formation of an African regional body with national chapters to follow up on work on FGM in African countries, the body later became known as the Inter- African Committee (IAC); b) Conceptualising FGM as a human rights issue; and
c) Placing FGM on the agenda of the united nations human rights commission as a human rights issue
The release of the MRG publication also evoked media interest and the first UK documentary on FGM was the BBC’s Forty Minutes programme, shot in the Sudan in 1982 with the advisory support of WAGFEI, who facilitated contacts in the Sudan on behalf of the BBC. The documentary provided the
British public with direct evidence of the health complications associated with severe forms of FGM for the first time and aroused major interest in the subject from the British and international public, and among members of the House of Lords.
In 1982, the MRG project on FGM came to an end. As a research and information human rights charity MRG could not take the work on FGM any further. Rather than let the campaign die a natural death, Efua co-opted a small group of dedicated UK and Africa-based women to form FORWARD in 1983 – an
international charity with its headquarters in London. The aim of the organisation was identified to “promote awareness to counter traditional practices prejudicial to the health of women and children”.