Our Selves, Our Daughters- Talking About Change

SERC Manitoba (Sexuality Education Resource Centre) is an organization with a really big vision: A diverse society that celebrates healthy sexuality through life. Recently as we engaged in strategic planning we discussed at length what this really means and how we can be all things to all people- it’s a really big job! When we think of SERC’s core identity, it is clear that a critical component is our work with newcomers to Canada. Community education sessions provide an opportunity for them to discuss the many complexities of human sexuality. Nowhere is this more evident than SERC’s groundbreaking work in Female Genital Cutting (FGC).

In recent years, increasing numbers of newcomer have come to Manitoba from countries that practice female genital cutting (FGC). We prefer this term over FGM (female genital mutilation) because it causes less stigma and is more community-friendly.

FGC is an ancient women-held tradition. In many places in the world it is still a cultural norm. Unlike many traditional practices, FGC is considered an integral part of a woman’s identity. Often it is the only path a girl can follow to enter womanhood, to become marriageable and have a place in society. Although the harms of FGC are well-documented, in practicing communities FGC is seen by many as beneficial, not harmful. With many desirable cultural and social outcomes linked to the practice, it is slow to change. http://www.serc.mb.ca/projects/female-genital-cutting

Our Selves, Our Daughters offers community based education to address FGC with refugee and immigrant women in Winnipeg. Recently I had the opportunity to sit in on an education session where our two facilitators (Simret and Linda) provided information on FGC and the project to a group of fourth year nursing students. The information provided is factual and detailed, including graphical depictions of what the three common types of FGC may look like to a nurse encountering someone who has experienced it.

The session also provides a bit of a primer on cultural competence; why it is key to providing client-centered healthcare, and how important it is to acknowledge that our beliefs impact the care we provide. Watching the students interact it was evident that they had not had much opportunity to give thought or have exposure to this topic; this was critical education for them in doing their work.

As we are halfway through the annual 16 Days of Activism against gender based violence, which in Canada includes December 6th as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, one of the conversations that really struck me in this session was the acknowledgement that western countries have also developed many methods of abusing and oppressing women. In fact, female oppression is universal.

It is evident that one of the main goals of this type of education is challenging the lens through which you see the world. For example, there was a stimulating conversation about the rise of vaginal cosmetic surgery in the west, and possible parallels. My favorite resource that was shared is a website celebrating the diversity of women’s genitals, called the Great Wall of Vagina: http://www.greatwallofvagina.co.uk/great-wall-vagina-panels

FGC Facts

  • FGC affects an estimated 100-140 million women and girls worldwide
  • It is not restricted to one religious group and does not appear in any main religious texts
  • Though we have no prevalence studies in Canada we do know many women from FGC practicing countries now live in Winnipeg

Working in communities that practice or have practiced FGC we have learned many important things about how it is viewed. Participants describe it as a form of protection for women, ensuring marriageability and preventing rape. Unfortunately it may result in a variety of short and long term health outcomes meaning it is critical that our health care community understands the implications of FGC on a woman’s health and sexuality.

At SERC our focus is on providing education and support to these communities to empower women to make informed decisions about their bodies, and those of their daughters. We know that laws are not enough to stop a practice, and in order to create meaningful change we need to work together to support women and men from FGC practicing cultures to have the knowledge and support they need for long term change.

This year when I attend the Sunrise Memorial for the National Day of Remembrance and Action, I will be thinking about how we support all communities to make decisions and embrace practices that do not harm our women and girls. I encourage you to join me in this meditation on change.