Tag Archives: FGM
By Christina Piaia and Emilia Vasella, 2y2w team members
The global Girl Summit, hosted by the British government and UNICEF last month in London, was no small affair.
Representatives from 50 different countries along with NGO’s, UN agencies, faith organizations, business and community leaders, and a host of grassroots activists attended the event, pledging to end child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) within a generation. Commitments ranged from financial support for programs dedicated to protecting at-risk girls to legislative efforts designed to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities.
Amid the promises from powerbrokers came a powerful call to action from none other than an 18-year-old Pakistani girl. Farwa Khalil’s parents couldn’t afford her school fees, so they pulled her from classes in the eighth grade, intending to marry her off.
Farwa was lucky. Plans for her marriage were scuttled when an aunt agreed to cover the cost of educating her. Farwa, who wants to become an engineer, has used the years since then to advocate for girls. She participated in the Youth For Change conference just prior to the Girl Summit, then shared with summit participants her own efforts to end child marriage and ensure girls have the same educational and economic opportunities as boys.
“Now it’s your turn,” she challenged the audience during the summit’s opening. “What are you going to do to end child marriage?”
Most of the 600 or so delegates who attended the summit have returned home, and the halls of host Walworth Academy are likely much quieter for it. But Farwa’s question still rings in our ears and should for a good, long time. What are we going to do? British Prime Minister David Cameron himself acknowledged during the event that it’s not enough to pass laws and spend money. Though that’s a decent start, without changing the culture that encourages and permits girls to be treated as chattel, progress will be limited and a long time coming. What’s needed is a clear objective and plenty of grassroots-level follow-through, said Cameron.
“I go to lots of conferences and events and seminars and think tanks and all the rest of it, and sometimes you sit there and you’re not quite sure what you’re trying to achieve,” he told summit participants. “Here, it is absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve: it is such a simple but noble and good ambition, and that is to outlaw the practices of female genital mutilation and childhood and early forced marriage—to outlaw them everywhere, for everyone within this generation. That is the aim. That is the ambition.”
That kind of change starts with a conversation, uncomfortable though it may be. An abridged version of the Too Young to Wed exhibit accompanied the Girl Summit. The stark images by photographer Stephanie Sinclair have provided heartbreaking evidence in support of the data, and they’ve served as a jumping-off point for many discussions about these issues in recent years.
UNICEF estimates that some 700 million women around the world were married as children, and the UNFPA warns that another 142 million girls face the same fate over the next decade. Roughly 125 million women and girls worldwide are estimated to be living with the consequences of female genital mutilation. Those numbers are almost inconceivable. But the faces of the girls who are victims of these practices are very, very real.
There is 15-year-old Sarita, her face glistening with tears, after she and her 8-year-old sister are married off in their Indian village. There is Tehani, raped at the age of 6 by her 25-year-old husband. And there is Asia, a Yemeni girl of 14, who struggles to care for her 2-year-old and a newborn while still bleeding and ill from childbirth.
At the exhibition, two young girls not much older than Asia stood before the photo of her washing her baby, whispering to each other. Photographer Stephanie Sinclair, who has been documenting child marriage for a dozen years, stopped to chat with them and urged them to promote change by speaking up.
“We had no idea this was going on,” one of the girls told Sinclair.
Luckily, awareness of child marriage and FGM are on the rise, thanks to advocacy work by groups like Girls Not Brides and Equality Now and the high-level conversations that give rise to events like Girl Summit 2014. Perhaps even more importantly, those conversations are beginning to happen at the local level by engaging parents, young girls and boys, and religious and community leaders who understand the cultural implications of these practices and are uniquely suited to offering meaningful, long-term solutions.
So as Farwa so bluntly and eloquently put it: What are we going to do? How do we go from talking about these issues—what Cameron referred to collectively as “preventable evil”—to doing something that produces real, measurable results?
The international charter that accompanied Girl Summit 2014 seemed to anticipate this concern. It urges signatories, including more than 30 national governments, to gather more and better data about child marriage and FGM and share that information with change-makers; to support youth-led initiatives; to invest in girls across educational, health, justice and social programs; and to back up policies and laws with tangible support for locally based efforts. “Lasting change will come from communities themselves,” the charter says.
As a necessary accountability measure, the commitments of those who signed the charter “will be monitored and assessed on an annual basis,” and the results will be published online for all to see.
The charter also notes that the responsibility for ending child marriage and FGM rests on broad shoulders. Governments, NGO’s and international organizations have important roles to play, but the success of their efforts depends largely on their ability to engage everyone from teens like Farwa to village elders, long considered the keepers of tradition.
“Traditions are not sent from heaven, they are not sent from God. [It is us] who make cultures,” Pakistani human rights activist Malala Yousafzai told the summit. “We have the right to change it and we should change it. Those traditions that go against the health of girls, they should be stopped.”
It’s important too that everyone understands that progress for girls and women means progress for everyone. Buying into that reality is essential for us to go from talking about these problems to fixing them.
“This is one of the most important messages that we need to get out there: that FGM and forced marriage aren’t just ‘women’s problems,’ ” UK’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said during the summit. “These practices aren’t just confined to the developing world. They impact every single one of us, and no country can afford to ignore them.”
British-born Gabriella Gillespie thought she was going on vacation.
In fact, her father was taking the 13-year-old and her sisters from their home in Wales to his native Yemen, where one-by-one, he sold them into marriage.
“We had been tricked into thinking this was going to be a fantastic holiday, but now it was anything but a holiday,” Gillespie writes in her memoir, “A Father’s Betrayal,” which goes on sale Friday. “ . . . I began to realise what had happened to us: we had been kidnapped!”
What followed that horrifying revelation were years of fear, heartache and abuse, meted out largely by her father and second husband. Gillespie, now 50 and living in Bristol, England, said she wrote the memoir hoping it would inspire other young girls to speak up before they are forced into marriages.
Gillespie married first at 13 and then again at 14 after her first husband, Mana, died six weeks after their wedding. She endured 17 years in a violent marriage, fleeing with her five children only after her husband announced plans to marry off their oldest daughter, who was still a child.
She found refuge at the British Embassy in Yemen and returned to England, the country of her birth, not long after. This week, she participates in the British Government’s Girl Summit 2014 in London, where an abridged version of the Too Young to Wed exhibit is on display as well. The event is designed to rally global support for ending child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM), and even those who can’t get to London to participate in-person can pledge their support online.
Below, Gillespie shares several excerpts from her book, chronicling the anguish she, her sisters and even a cousin suffered as child brides.
“It will always be a part of who I was, but I’m not that girl anymore,” she told Britain’s Daily Mail. “I know I’m a strong person and I hope I can show other girls that no matter how long it takes, no matter how bad things get, things can change if you stay strong. . . . I needed to start speaking out about what happened to us so that this never happens again.”
After Gillespie’s first husband died, she was returned to her father’s house to await another arranged marriage. But first, a shocking discovery.
“When did you have your last period?” she asked. I tried to think back but I couldn’t.
“I don’t know. Why?” I asked, confused why she was asking about my periods.
“Muna, you could be pregnant!” she gasped. I looked at Yas who looked even more confused than me.
“No I’m not! Anyway, what’s my period got to do with getting pregnant?” I asked.
“Yeah, what’s her period got to do with it?” Yas asked. Nebat explained to us that if a girl misses her period it means she could be pregnant. I couldn’t think back to when I had my last period, but I knew that since being married, I hadn’t had one. Nebat called Gran and told her, and then Gran called for Dad.
Nebat went on to tell me that if I was pregnant with Mana’s baby then that changed everything. If Mana’s parents wanted to take care of me and the child, then they could. All they would have to do is agree to financially provide for both us for the rest of our lives. However, she told me that this very rarely happened in Yemen. Usually the baby would be allowed to stay with its mother until a certain age before it’s taken off her and given to the father’s family so that the mother can remarry.
Although the thought of being pregnant at 13 terrified me, I was praying that I was pregnant. I didn’t know anything about being pregnant or having children, but I felt in my heart that Mana’s family were good people and would take care of me if I had his child. I would rather live as a widow forever, bringing up my child, knowing that I was close to my sister, than spend another day with this family of mine!
Gillespie and her sisters were not the only child brides in the family. Their cousin, Farouse, who was about 12, was also married. “She used to be so full of life and energy, so funny and mischievous,” Gillespie recalled in an email. “Until her wedding.”
Farouse looked gorgeous in her wedding dress that Ahmed had brought from Japan, and it fitted her beautifully. The afternoon went well and as we left, she told us she was going to try and allow him to touch her again that night. The next morning we found out that when her husband tried to touch her, Farouse started screaming and wouldn’t stop.
When we went to see her that afternoon she looked scared and told us she couldn’t do it. She said she knew it would hurt because all her friends had told her so and she was scared. We tried to comfort her, but we could tell that nothing we said or did could reassure her that everything would be OK. After the third day we would find out just how cruel Yemeni culture could be towards young girls who said no.
On the fourth day Al Mouzayna was brought back into Farouse’s house, accompanied by another woman most females referred to as “The evil witch doctor!” Together they took Farouse away in a Jeep, accompanied by Ahmed and his mother. We were told they were taking Farouse to hospital to find her some medicine to help her relax a little bit because she had become hysterical every time Ahmed tried to touch her.
They returned a day later, but we weren’t allowed to see our cousin for a couple of days. When we finally saw her, she looked as if she had been beaten. She was full of bruises. We hugged and cried together while she told us how she had been taken to a house where she was held down by those women and her mother-in-law.
They stripped her naked, then tied her to a chair where Ahmed raped her to prove her virginity, and then he raped and beat her over and over again until she agreed never to disobey him again!
Farouse looked different; her innocence had been taken, and her spirit broken! When Ahmed’s mother came into the room offering drinks, I looked into her eyes and saw the evil that Farouse had spoken of. I tried to understand how one female could do that to another. This woman had daughters of her own! Did she not worry that the same thing could happen to them?
Yemen is likely to vote on a comprehensive ‘Child Rights Act’ over the coming months, which would ban both child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM).