International Women's Day is an opportunity to celebrate the strides women have made over the decades when it comes to equality. But it's also easy to become complacent about the many issues women around the world face when it comes to access to healthcare, education, and other basic rights.
It's also easy to forget that these issues of health and education are not plagues that afflict women in far off lands, something to be aware of but that we can't do much to address. Women have their rights and their bodies repeatedly violated everywhere- in foreign countries and in our own neighbourhoods. Which is why this March 8, we should all take a moment to look around and reflect on how very fortunate we can be in the UK, and to recognise the people driving grassroots campaigns to change the lives of all women.
FGM is one such issue. We have all heard of it. We all know what it is and wince when we read the stories of women in Africa or Indonesia being cut as a result of unchallenged religious, cultural or social norms. But FGM is also widespread in the UK- even though it is already illegal.
FGM- in all its forms, and there are many- has been a criminal offence in the UK for over three decades. More recently it has also become an offence for UK nationals or permanent residents to take a child abroad for the actual cutting. And yet 23,000 girls under the age of 15 could be at risk of FGM in England and Wales, according to the NSPCC.
Just as alarming is the number of women living with the consequences of FGM in the UK- up to 60,000 as per NSPCC figures. These women are at risk of myriad chronic conditions from urinary tract infections to menstrual problems and infertility. Not to mention they often live in pain and experience decreased sexual pleasure and trauma.
One such woman is Hoda Ali, a nurse from Brent who was subjected to Type 3 (out of 4) FGM at the age of seven, while her family still lived in Somalia. She explains that it's not a "class thing, or an education thing in Somalia. 98% of girls are cut there." Hoda says she felt pain at the time, but never gave it a second thought until she got sick at the age of 11. Hoda spent the best part of two decades in and out of hospitals in Somalia, Djibouti, Italy and UK because of the damage FGM did to her body. For years she didn't have a period, and had to undergo multiple operations to reverse some of the damage.Despite being fortunate enough to receive medical attention she has been left scarred, inside and out, and unable to have children.
But Hoda considers herself among the lucky ones. The fact that she got sick meant she got to see doctors and nurses in Africa and Europe and could have the FGM reversed- and she is alive, when many women die from countless complications derived from the cutting. Hoda is also remarkable in that she has dedicated her adult life to educating and empowering other women like her to challenge the cultural order and break the FGM cycle in their communities. As well as a nurse, Hoda is also a vocal End FGM campaigner, and she works with projects like the Women's Health & Family Services (WHFS), to change the lives of women like herself.
Because of entrenched cultural values, these women don't often feel empowered to seek medical help to have FGM reversed, or even to challenge the system and end up perpetrating the same violence on their daughters. The only way to break the FGM cycle is through education and engagement with the communities that still practice it.
The good news is that there are grassroots organisations reaching out to these women and offering a way to break out of the cycle. WHFS in Tower Hamlets, London, is one such organisation that found a way to connect with the women of the Somali community and to empower them to challenge FGM
"We run a community programme where we identify women who have had FGM and then had the reversal procedure, and they become our community champions. They support other women in a similar position," said Sharon Hanooman, Chief Executive of the organisation. She explains that by empowering women through training and education to go back out into their communities and speak to others in their own terms and language, they have obtained extremely positive results. "Just today, my FGM project coordinator told me she met a woman who wanted to do the FGM reversal operation, and that this one woman had five other friends, none of which knew where to turn to for support, but that wanted the reversal operation. They were so pleased we have a Somali project worker that could connect with them."
WHFS are only one of many grassroots organisations reaching out to women through community engagement projects, but a lot of these not-for-profits have a hard time obtaining funding for their work. WHSF relies on grants and support from donations in order to continue their health and prevention work. But the lack of funding is not holding them back; Sharon and her colleagues at WHFS presented their project 'Raise our Voices' in the House of Commons last October and have since continued to promote their work and raise awareness through TV documentaries and public speaking engagements.
It is women like Hoda and Sharon who we should be celebrating this Sunday. Women who have seized the opportunities they were given by virtue of living in the UK, using these opportunities to improve the lives of other women here and abroad. That is what International Women's Day should be all about: relishing in our accomplishments but remembering that there is still a long way to go.