Conference on Youth Engagement to End FGM in Brussels

October 15, 2018

The 11th of October 2018, at the International Day of the Girl Child, a lunchtime conference was organized in Brussels entitled ‘Youth Engagement to end Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)’.

The European Week of Action for Girls

The European Week of Action of Girls (EWAG) is a week-long programme of events and activities, based around the International Day of the Girl Child. The European Week of Action for Girls took place from the 8th until the 12th of October 2018 and was organised by a coalition of civil society organizations, and supported by European Institutions and UN Agencies. The EWAG gave girls the opportunity to talk to EU decision-makers and to share their concerns, see for example this video. They addressed EU leaders on what needs to be done to overcome the barriers they face and to ensure their rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. This year, the EWAG particularly focused on girls’ right to education, combatting violence, economic empowered and to participate in decision-making. During the week, several conferences were organized.

 

Youth engagement to end FGM – Stories from Africa and Europe 

This lunchtime conference showcased projects and programs providing young people the space to use their voice and creativity to contribute to the abandonment of FGM/C. Moreover, it focused on the importance of having a youth-centered approach when working towards the abandonment of FGM/C both in Africa and Europe. The conference was live streamed, you can watch the sessions here.

The introduction of the theme of the conference was done by Maxence Daublain, policy officer at the Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO). He emphasized that FGM/C is a violation of the rights of girls. He explained that DEVCO is working on the issue of FGM/C for the past 10 years and he highlighted some of the achievements that he is very proud of, such as improved access to services and the amount of public declarations in Africa. At the same time, he also emphasized that a lot of work remains to be done in order to meet the targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He said that we need to ask ourselves the following questions: what should we do better, how to address the medicalization of FGM/C, how can we change social norms, how can we share our lessens learned? He urged that we need collective effort to achieve results. He explained that to his mind, the global momentum is existing, but that we need a better structured movement to achieve our targets. At the end of his presentation, he also highlighted the Spotlight Initiative, and he explained that they are going to address harmful practices including FGM/C in Africa within the framework of Spotlight to improve and accelerate efforts to end FGM/C. It was nice that he mentioned it, because I have been working since June for the UN in West and Central Africa on the Spotlight Initiative, providing technical assistance to UN agencies for the development of country strategies in the field of Violence Against Women, and also specifically on FGM/C.

The second speaker was Fiona Coyle, the Director of the End FGM European Network. She first provided some background information on FGM/C, including a reflection on the definition of FGM/C. Fiona emphasized that FGM/C is not confined by any country or continent, but that it happens worldwide, including in Asia. She explained that 260 million girls and women will be cut between now and 2030 if urgent action is not taken. She agreed with Maxence in terms of the need for future action: “Greater energy and commitment is necessary to reach goal 5.3 of the SDGs” and emphasized that it is important that enough money is channeled to make a difference on the ground. She further explained that young people need to remain at the heart of the issue: “It is girls under 18 who undergo the practice. We can’t end FGM if we do not engage with young people.” The question is how we can meaningfully engage young people.

An answer to that question was provided by the next speaker, Fatima Awil, who is an ambassador of the End FGM European Network. She originates from Somalia, but currently lives in the UK. While introducing herself, she explains that she is an activist since she was 16. Her focus is mainly on FGM/C and child marriage. She emphasized that it is important and necessary to have youth voices included in the debate to end FGM/C: “The voices of young people, not only young women, but also young men, are not only essential in relation to ending FGM, but essential in ending all forms of violence.” Her first point focused on the taboo aspects of FGM/C. She explained that talking about sensitive topics such as your body, genitals and sexuality is engrained in taboo and not commonly done. This is a big problem in relation to the growth and continuation of FGM/C. Young girls and women do not feel free to debate, challenge, or even ask questions about those practices: “You don’t feel comfortable talking about an issue from which you know it is sensitive.” Therefore, she argued, it is important to break the cycle when teaching the youth what FGM/C means and what exactly the effects are. She sees nice opportunities here, which linked to her second point, namely that young people love social media. According to Fatima, this is a great way to break the silence and use the momentum, for example by using Twitter and Facebook. However, she explains that education in existing school systems and institutions is also important – and might work even better. She shared the example of a successful initiative of Forward UK and explained that their aim is to have this curricula compulsory in the next years, i.e. to have education on root causes on practices like FGM/C and other forms of violence. Students are taught about their own bodies, their rights with the aim to open their eyes to gender-based violence. She therefore encouraged teachers to get a training of Forward UK. Her third point was that young people could be the changemakers towards ending FGM/C. She explains that the best way to end FGM/C is to eradicate the social norm aspect. However, there is currently still a lack of dialogue. But: young people are in the perfect position to have intergenerational discussions. She argued the following: “The youth is in best position to educate families. They can do it sensitively and effectively.” She explained that it is important to keep the culture, but to remove the aspects that are harmful (in this case FGM/C). The problem we need to address is the lack of understanding of the harm that FGM/C causes on women’s medical and physical health. Intergenerational dialogue can change perspectives of family members and the social norms associated to it. She finishes her presentation by saying that FGM/C is a practice that is done on young girls: “You need to include the thoughts of young boys and girls when ending FGM, otherwise you will fail. Young people need to be invited to the table, their voices need to be heard. They need to be included in the discussions at the national, European and international level and to be involved in the decision-making process. Then they will be able to become the change agents in their communities.” 

The next speaker was Clara Caldera, Program Officer of the Italian Association for Women in Development (AIDOS). She spoke about a pilot project ‘Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM/C’, which was supported by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on FGM/C. She explained the importance of involving the young generation in both the European and the African context, because the decision to cut or not to cut is never an individual one. Their aim is to increase effectiveness and build bridges not only between the two continents, but also between young people, activists and professionals in the countries. A video was shown of a very nice project that focused on trainings in Burkina Faso and Uganda, reinforcing the capacity of young people to advocate for change.

The last speaker was Valentina Fanelli, Program Officer of the same organisation. She explained that the video that we saw was entirely shot by smartphones in Burkina Faso. AIDOS provided guidance in relation to each step of the process: profiles, script, casting, production, plan, shooting and editing. The aim of the video project was to provide young people with the tools to tell their stories: to allow them to speak with their own voices. They empowered young people that were already working on those issues at community level. Valentina shared with the audience that the issue of the ‘lack of communication’, in particular between men and women, came back in all the video’s. In some cases she found out that both men and women are against FGM/C, but they are not discussing it and continue with the practice, because one presumes that the other one is in favor of the practice. The video’s made highlight the current change towards the abandonment of FGM/C, which is on-going in so many communities. Something that was already addressed by one of the previous speakers, but that was highlighted by Valentina again was that you should not question traditions as a whole, but it is important to keep traditions and take out what is harmful. It was nice to see that the video’s are used as a tool for trainings in Burkina Faso, but also in European countries (including Italy, Spain, Malta).

Afterwards, we had 20 minutes for interesting and thought-provoking questions and answers. Some young girls in the audience asked: “What can I do as a young person to end FGM?” Fatima provided an answer and explained how she could use Facebook to raise certain issues. In addition, the importance of empathy and the fact that mothers want the best for their child’s future was highlighted. Also, the lack of data and the need for more research was mentioned. One women also asked the following question, which was very much to the point: “FGM is not a women’s issue, but a societal one. We discussed that the involvement of men and boys is crucial. If we look at this room, it is mostly girls and women. War between gender/sexes? How could be try to involve more males?” Lastly, we had a quick debate about the language used to refer to the practice. What is best: excision, FGM, FGC, the combination FGM/C, or circumcision?

All in all, I enjoyed being part of the EWAG and this conference. It was a very interesting conference, with powerful and informing presentations. The next End FGM event will take place the 27th of November in Paris, where I will be present as well. Then we’ll discuss mainstreaming in relation to FGM/C: another exciting topic!