Jennette met Dr. Christina this week, to take part in a research interview for Dr. Christina’s new book, which will address FGM and social activism.
You can watch the video on Youtube, but here is a summary of their conversation.
Perhaps we can start by you introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about your interest in FGM?
“I’ve been campaigning against FGM now for so long that I have to pinch myself…over 40 years! So I started before any legislation that we have, I’ve campaigned for legislation and amending legislation – working to support the legislation that is currently happening about safeguarding which will put a duty on every professional to act to protect children”
“I’m passionate about FGM because I met a woman, I was her nurse, and I still feel to this day that I wasn’t equipped to give her the care she needed…in fact I was so frightened and shocked by the sight of her genitalia that when I saw it I fainted, and no carer wants to be in that position.
It was her third child, she was Egyptian and she was here with her husband who was a senior practitioner, and the hospital had agreed that he would perform the operation and then indeed sow her back up again…that experience never leaves you.”
“So I started campaigning to get a sense that in that hospital that this was wrong…which of course it was wrong. Doctors should not operate on their families, and something like this shouldn’t happen at all. I’ve been campaigning ever since.”
“With campaigning…I love jigsaws… life is one big jigsaw and if we all put our piece towards a goal we will get there. I’m hopeful that it won’t be long before the cutters stop their trade and maybe themselves become educators.”
So you’re hopeful that we will see a world free of FGM?
“Yes I’m optimistic. Even though the horror never leaves you, it’s not horror because I’m not a survivor… I came to this as a practitioner. But I would never like another practitioner to be unknowing and a woman who is in a situation like that to never receive the full care.
I really believe that the survivors, many of whom are anti-FGM campaigners, if we can all give them our support, then I am confident that we are working towards a time where FGM will stop.”
How do we do that, not only from a practical perspective but from the messages and how we frame FGM… is it a health issue, a human rights issue, honour-based violence issue, or all of the above?
“I’m a hardliner on this… I see it as a human rights issue and a safeguarding issue. Those are the areas that I stay with. If we look at it in this way, then it fits into our legislative structures, it fits into professionals being able to work to protect and prevent FGM. It’s also about how we work with communities by getting the resources to support members of communities doing pastoral work and outreach, working with families.”
“I think we’ve passed the point, in the general sense, that anyone would now talk about it as a cultural issue…it is a matter of safeguarding our children. No child, absolutely not one, should be mutilated… there isn’t a conversation that would say that cutting off a child’s nose is a cultural issue.
I don’t think the conversation exists as it used to… and that is a good thing. I suppose you have to be mindful where it comes from… we’re talking about a tradition that was centuries old and linked to other things, such as foot-binding, burning of widows… women, we’ve been treated incredibly by ourselves, by men, by patriarchal structures for a while. But we fought back and we’ll keep fighting back.”
What is your view on the ‘medicalisation’ of FGM, something that you’ve said is a child or human rights abuse?
“Many of my good friends are survivors…and there is a period where they do need access to medical care, because of the complications. Just put FGM into google and you’ll know what it is and what the complications are. If you’re seeking to find out why your body isn’t working or whether you are infertile because of the procedure, or you’re just feeling generally unwell, then you need to have access to medical care from someone that knows what they are doing.
I do believe that there should be specialist providers…so if that’s what is considered ‘medicalisation’, then I don’t see how that is wrong. I think that is a necessary part of supporting women who have been subject to FGM.”
Medicalisation also involves subjecting women and girls to FGM procedures but within a medical environment… taking them to a hospital to have FGM carried out by a surgeon.
“Who would have that right? Who would give that permission? This is the whole thing about it… if you talk to a survivor, the commonality is that they go in to have this ‘experience’ which they are told will be good for them, that they will move from being outside a group to being a part of the group. These kinds of stories are told to young girls, as young as 4, and then 6 and 10, so that they go along without screaming and running away. And once they’re in those confines then they are held down. So that is just straightforward abuse and illegal and no-one has, not even parents, the right to allow their child to be mutilated…it is illegal and should always be illegal.”
What campaigns and initiatives are you involved in here at City Hall?
“As I’ve said before it’s always constant… it depends where I am and who I’m talking to. 40 years ago it was within my nursing profession with midwives, like how can we bring about an understanding. We had to go abroad and search for that information. There was a marvellous woman, the late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, affectionately known as “Mama Efua”, who wrote her Msc on the subject.
I started to work with her once she had founded FORWARD… and I was a trustee on that body. We started working on the Children’s Act, to ensure that the child was protected. There’s a sort of separation… an adult woman have more choices but a child, an adolescent person, does not always have that choice. That’s why safeguarding has always been especially important for me. Efua and I and many others worked into the night and campaigned to influence that first bit of act, and we then carried on working. After that I started working with other groups locally in the community, giving them support while I was a Councillor in Islington. We brought that into our policies in Islington while I was a Councillor there.
Wherever I’ve been, I’ve taken the issue. When I was on the Metropolitan Police Authority we took the matter to then commissioner and that was the start of the Metropolitan Polices’ Forced Marriages and FGM unit. It was started under Commissioner Stephenson and I was there enabling survivors to speak because at that time police weren’t as informed as they are today or as much as other professionals.”
“The work that I’m doing now is leading the assembly’s involvement…we’ve always made it clear that we want to be involved at the right time for us. We’ve decided that now is the right time to tackle the issue and so we recently brought together all the professionals and we had conversations with them. The feedback was excellent because it brought all the experts together to share and learn from each other across boundaries…and we were able to get a sense of what they wanted.”
“We then wrote to the Mayor of London. Everybody agreed that there need to be leadership, welcoming the NHS as the leading body. We agreed that there needed to be collaborative working where the police gets involved after the cutting. The police should be getting involved after the cutting. The focus, we felt needed to be on prevention, education and training; working with communities, working with anyone out there who has a voice of authority or influence; and resources and long-term funding of course. I was pleased to hear that the Mayor has accepted all recommendations and so now I will be working with all assembly members in order to track the work of the Mayor’s Police and Crime Unit.”
“We want the police to be able to arrest and bring the criminal justice system into play…but we also want there to be education, learning and prevention. The NHS will take the lead on this to help social workers and ‘lay educators’ who give up their time to work with groups in their local communities.”
I want to ask you about the social media aspects that you do, and where you think this is going. How can social media help towards the fight for ending FGM?
“It’s all about dissemination, and getting information out there. You just have to keep your senses about you. You can’t just absorb everything that’s out there.
“I would only post something that’s active, about the campaign and what’s developing. I speak to loads of activists via tweets, as that’s an accessible way. A friend of mine and fantastic campaigner against FGM – Hibo Wardere – the passion and energy she brings to it as a survivor, activist and writer. She’s just written a powerful biography called ‘Cut’. It’s amazing – she’s in Africa at the moment finding out where they are and reporting back. She has some amazing stories of good practice, cutters that are now lay-educators, and where countries have made cutting illegal.”
“These kinds of things are important to share… the work of my colleagues. So my use of it is informing.”
What might be the drawbacks of social media?
“There is a lot of narrative online… if that’s not good then we have to just try and ignore it. Grassroots and online activity are both valid, and they complement each other.
There will always be hostility… I’m not going to be distracted by that. There are messages to use and platforms that are great for informing such as online lectures on Facebook and other platforms.”
What are the greatest challenges to overcoming FGM in general and what would be your top priority?
“I think it’s what we’re seeing now… we have a Mayor and deputy who are totally committed to their roles in ensuring that everything they do is about bringing an end to FGM. We have a great partnership with the NHS and all the boroughs have their own initiatives. I think the biggest challenge is finding the resources to keep it all going.”
“I think resources and funding are the biggest challenges we face at the moment… we might find pockets where there is no activity because of budget cuts to local authorities. We need to keep the pressure up to ensure that we can end cutting altogether.”
“Look to the amazing survivors that are doing wonderful work and be as supportive as you can with them. Think of the journey they’ve been on, and their goal is to stop that happening to anyone else. Travel optimistically with the goal of ending FGM, if not in our lifetime then as near to that as possible.”
Dr. Christina Julios is Associate Professor at Birkbeck University and author of book Forced Marriage and ‘Honour’ Killings in Britain – Private Lives, Community Crimes and Public Policy Perspectives