Before my TuWezeshe journey, I had learned about FORWARD by word of mouth. A couple of years ago, my friend had encouraged me to apply to the programme as it focused on African women’s rights, bodies, autonomy and leadership – all of which were issues I was interested in. But due to being shy, feeling unaccomplished and suffering from imposter syndrome, I didn’t feel confident enough to apply that time around.
In the meantime, I decided to take on voluntary work with other programmes focused on girls’ education, women’s rights, gender-based violence, and inclusion and diversity, particularly in the UK, the EU, Ghana and the Gambia.
After completing my undergraduate degree in politics and international relations, which had a special focus on NGOs, the third sector and charities, I gained the confidence to apply for the TuWezeshe programme. I was later delighted to learn that I had been accepted for the 2021 TuWezeshe Spotlight cohort.
Sisterhood and self-development
The training’s accommodating schedule allowed me to attend sessions without causing disruption to my work, education and other commitments. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the leadership training had to be delivered via zoom. The good thing about this was that both UK and EU fellows were able to virtually participate – a result of FORWARD’s partnership with the End FGM European Network. This allowed me to network with fellows from the UK, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Norway and Denmark!
During training, we focused on topics such as leadership, research, power and agency, and gender and patriarchy, which are important to African feminist women’s leadership. We also analysed the third sector, NGOs and other bodies and the way in which they can help or hinder women’s education, health and human rights, with a special focus on FGM.
Our discussions and lessons also focused on PEER research, research methods and theories and how to use this knowledge to conduct an individual research project. The project involved interviews with people from FGM-affected countries, cultures and communities to discover their views on FGM back home, in the UK and amongst the diaspora in the EU. Our task as individuals was to carry out two-three interviews and transcribe them to determine young people’s views. We particularly sought the views of young diaspora women to find out their views on FGM and its prevalence in the UK and EU and even to consider views on FGM in the countries of their origin or heritage.
Our facilitators were dynamic and engaging. They were excellent speakers and researchers who each tackled different topics. I felt as though each topic and speaker taught me something different and a different leadership attribute. I cannot pick a favourite session – every single one of them was good!
One of the best things about this whole experience was the sisterhood made with the other fellows regardless of their countries of origin, where they live or their spoken languages. As a cohort we developed a friendship, a sisterhood and a bond. We have all individually and collectively made a decision to be part of the fight against FGM, all other forms of gender-based violence and other injustices faced by African women worldwide.
After our online training sessions, I felt exceptionally well-prepared for the research project, which was the second phase of the fellowship. After speaking with FORWARD’s research team, the other fellows and online training facilitators to discuss the research, I came up with my research questions and felt inspired to begin the project. Having conducted interviews for my masters research, I felt somewhat confident in speaking to respondents about their views and creating a safe environment for them. However, I had not considered that getting respondents to participate in the first place would be a task in itself.
Due to work commitments, I struggled to find enough time to promote my research and recruit participants. I eventually managed to get three respondents to take part in my research and the best part about their participation was that each of them was from a different FGM-affected community or country. I felt this would make the research richer and provide a range of thoughts and opinions. The respondents also varied in age, which also meant that they would probably speak from different points of view due to their lived experiences and knowledge. This was exciting, as I knew each interview would be unique and offer different solutions to the various problems encountered by women and girls and their wider communities, especially when dealing with FGM.
The interview stage
After determining which interviews would be conducted online and in person, I realised that one of the participants was an FGM survivor. At first, this worried me, as I was concerned that the questions would be triggering. However, she assured me that she felt comfortable and thanked me for giving her the opportunity to talk about the practice. She said nobody outside of her community had ever considered her opinion or views on FGM and felt honoured the interview had helped her personal growth. I also offered her support and she was thankful to learn about organisations ran by people that look like her.
During the interviews, I re-considered what it means to be a researcher and a co-creator of knowledge and research. I learned so much about three various communities and how the practice of FGM changes in different community contexts.
I leave my TuWezeshe journey having learned a lot about young people’s views on FGM and how the practice affects them and their communities. Moving forward, I would love to engage in similar studies to further my understanding of FGM and other gender-based violence. I also aim to get more involved in VAWG activism and will begin to discuss it in my own family, community and locality.
Finally, I would like to thank FORWARD and the End FGM European Network for all of their hard work to create and present the programme. With new-found mentors and sisters, the journey to activism and advocacy has become much easier.
By Tirivashe Jele
The TuWezeshe Spotlight programme is funded by UNFPA under the UN-EU Spotlight Initiative, which aims to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls. Our implementing partner in Europe is the End FGM European Network.