There are few things in life that really make me angry, and one of them is FGM,” said Solomon Zewolde, researcher for FORWARD UK, an African led movement to end FGM, and UK co-ordinator of male anti-FGM initiative, Men Speak Out.
A partnership between GAMS Belgium, FORWARD, The Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp and HIMILO in the Netherlands, Men Speak Out is a group bringing African men in the European diaspora together. The aim? Engaging men in the process of ending female genital mutilation/cutting. Last week they held a meeting in London for the launch of new research into the issue.
There is no typical FGM story. Of the 200 million women and girls cut globally, an estimated 500, 000 are living in Europe. It’s not an African problem either. Colombia, India, Russia and the US all have histories of cutting girls, before the were signs of migration or “holiday cutting”. The circumstances around FGM go from induction into womanhood to “cleanliness”.
Women have been on the forefront of the effort to end it for decades. The late Efua Dorkenoo OBE, founder of FORWARD and the UK’s pioneering campaigner alongside Dr Comfort Momoh, activist Leyla Hussein, and Fahma Mohammed (who got Michael Gove to incorporate it into the curriculum) have made awareness part of the zeitgeist. They are women from practicing communities who lead the way on informing and educating men and women on the topic. That’s the way it should be. But if men are responsible for the framework, they need to help dismantle it.
“It’s clear that men have a role to play. For the sake of our girls let’s hope they play it.”
In wider survey done through the Men Speak Out project, men were asked for their views on why FGM happens. Some of the answers were disturbing.
“It was very important for my parents. They said I have to marry a clean girl.”
“In Fulani, one says that an uncut girl cannot sit meaning she doesn’t stay still, she runs around [with boys].”
“…uncut girls… Men prefer them for sex… they are seen as having lots of feelings and are good at sex. But not for marriage.”
Not all, but many responses related to purity, sex and marriage, suggesting FGM isn’t about culture or religion – it’s just one more way to control female sexuality. And men are the ends to this means. They are the husbands these girls are cleaned up or being purified for; the fathers who pay for plane tickets for a holiday cut. In reality, they may be neither for even against it, but they remain silent. When it comes to FGM, silence can be just as damaging.
“It’s about letting them into the space, but not letting them take over,” says Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director of FORWARD UK. “When it comes to FGM, you cannot talk about it without having men in our space,” and it looks like this is a space they want to be in. According MSO’s research, only 13 percent of the men surveyed believe FGM should continue. That leaves the remaining 87 percent with a lot of work to do.
Trainees of Men Speak Out originate from Egypt, Ethiopia, Guinea, Somalia, and beyond but their united goal is to bring about change in their communities. They are trained by male peer educators and taught health implications, religion arguments, and to understand societal pressures before being sent out with a personalized action plan to implement.
According to Zewolde, some have surpassed their plans and have taken their knowledge back to their countries of origin. It’s clear that men have a role to play. For the sake of our girls let’s hope they play it.