By FORWARD Youth Advocate Habon Duale, 17
Three years ago, my mother told me about Female Genital Mutilation. I don’t remember what I said but I remember, quite vividly, how I felt. When you know that there are girls as young as five being subjected to this practice it is incredibly difficult to ignore. I remember in the weeks following that it was constantly on my mind. How? Why? These were just a few of the many questions that I had. Outrage; I remember feeling horrified that I hadn’t heard about the practice sooner and at that time it felt like the rest of the world either didn’t know or didn’t care.
I was fourteen when we first began campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation. At that age it is extremely difficult to speak up about anything, especially something so taboo. This took an enormous amount of courage, which to be honest, I didn’t know I had. Making the decision to speak out about FGM boiled down to two things: I did not agree with this practice and I wanted it to come to an end. Being surrounded by people who were still ignorant of the practice gave me the perfect opportunity to begin discussing it with other people and really pushing myself out of my comfort zone. This, for me, was an incredibly important decision, it took a while but by the end of that year I could talk to perfect strangers about the female genitalia and my hands didn’t’ sweat quite so much!
My youth group, Empowering, for me, was and still is a safe place where I can discuss and learn more about this practice. Empowering is a youth-led group of young women and girls from BME communities living in Bristol who have embarked on this journey of youth advocacy together and have subsequently become very close.
Since 2011 I have seized opportunity after opportunity to raise awareness about Female Genital Mutilation, whether this was by dispelling myths about the practice among my friends or giving a presentation to a UN Rapporteur on the importance of young people in the campaign against FGM, makes little difference, they have all been vital steps in my journey as a youth advocate. Along this journey I have discovered things about myself that I may not have otherwise had the opportunity to do and I have really grown as a young woman.
The most amazing discovery I have made on my journey as a youth advocate is the power of young people as advocates for change. We are the future leaders, doctors, midwives, social workers and teachers which is why it is imperative that we learn NOW why FGM and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) are wrong – so that we grow up in a society that condemns these practices. This is why Empowering aims to empower other young people to speak out about these practices. However, this cannot be done until young people know what the practice is, hence the creation of our ‘FGM Factfile: An Interactive Teaching Resource’. As we began to learn more about FGM something became glaringly obvious to us; we should have been learning about this practice in our PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) lessons, we were already learning about domestic violence and male circumcision so why shouldn’t we have been learning about FGM as well?
We felt that education was key in eradicating this practice and so we set about creating an interactive resource that could be used safely in a classroom setting or a similar safe place for young people.
We were once asked why we didn’t focus our attention on teaching young people solely from FGM affected backgrounds and why we thought it was necessary to educate all young people. At the very heart of our campaign against FGM is the belief that it is a human rights abuse and is therefore, by definition is ‘everyone’s business’.
For me, one of the most amazing opportunities I have had on my journey of youth advocacy was the opportunity to plan and host our own conference. At the time, there were only seven young people in Empowering and some even doubted that we would be able to pull this off. However, where there’s a will there’s a way and with 7 months of planning fitted around being in full-time education, we did it! Our conference was a success and we managed to create an inter-generational dialogue. Empowering places heavy emphasis on working with the community health advocates and other health professionals as part of our campaign. We are hugely indebted to both these groups; they have supported us in our campaign and empowered us to speak out. Something that people often forget is that while the young people in Bristol have done incredible, perhaps even ground-breaking work, much of the work had already been done by the community health advocates and health professionals; we are simply adding our voices to an already strong campaign.
What I suppose I’m trying to say is that, despite all the amazing things we have done as a youth group, like creating the FGM Factfile, the most notable of our achievements has been building a relationship with all the other activists campaigning against Female Genital Mutilation and joining them in saying ‘No’ to FGM.
You can follow FORWARD’s Bristol youth partners, Empowering, on Twitter @Empowering4 and you can find out more about the work of FORWARD’s Youth Advocates by following @FORWARD_Youth or join them on Facebook!