Ultimately it is you, young people, who are the agents of change.
Lynne Featherstone (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, International Development) in her opening address at Integrate’s Conference.
I didn’t know what to expect from Integrate’s 2nd conference about female genital mutilation, or FGM. So far in my life, fancy sandwiches and posh biscuits have been the highlight of my conference experience. I knew about Integrate’s amazing work, and that this would be different. What I didn’t expect is how fun, inspiring, and informative this day would be.
FGM is defined as harm to a girl’s genitals for non-medical reasons. You’ve probably read about FGM in the newspapers in the last couple of years. Read about how the Government is improving their responses, how many young women in the UK are at risk, and about changing laws and practises surrounding FGM. You’ve read about this largely because of Integrate Bristol.
Integrate Bristol is a charity whose main aim is to help young people who have moved to Bristol from other countries and cultures. The group help young people with their education, but also run activities and projects that allow people to take part in society and make their voice heard. The group have come to national prominence through their raising awareness of FGM, and campaigning for more education and training for professionals who might come into contact with the practice.
Fahma Mohammed, a member of Integrate, started an online petition with The Guardian to persuade Michael Gove to put FGM on school’s agendas, to educate and protect girls who were vulnerable to being harmed. Fahma has met Michael Gove, Malala Yousefzai and Ban Ki Moon in her effort to get her campaign noticed and effected, and it’s working. Laws have been put into effect to safeguard girls, there are compulsory reporting measures in place, and awareness is growing. There were 4 Government ministers from 4 different departments present at the conference, and Baroness Northover from the Department for International Development, made something clear in her opening speech; “The work that [Integrate] have done in Bristol is reverberating not just around our country, but around the world”.
FGM is a difficult and sensitive subject for many to talk about. That’s why it was surprising that the tone of the conference was bright, frank and even fun. The walls of the school where the conference took place were covered in posters that students had made about FGM, and 3 out of the 4 workshops that I attended were led by young people. A group of girls sang a song that they had written with a local band called Circe’s Diner. The song is called Mama, and is bright, happy and inspiring.
The chorus of Mama includes the phrase “standing on the soldiers of giants”. Integrate have done incredible work raising awareness in the UK about FGM, and making the country safer for at risk groups, but it’s important to remember that the fight against FGM started in the countries that it’s prevalent in, in various African nations. People like Sudan’s former foreign minister and first lady, Edna Adan Ismail, and organisations like Selima, have been fighting against the practice in their own countries and continent. I’m waxing lyrical about Integrate’s work because, having come into contact with them, I’m completely in awe at their work and their spirit, but it’s important to remember that women in Africa have been leading this fight, and we can learn from them and support the work that they do.
That the conference was incredibly fun isn’t to say that it wasn’t serious. Integrate has made several films that can be used as teaching aids (and all of which can be found in the members section of their website), and the discussions that sprang from the videos were brilliant. This was in no small part to the girls facilitating the discussions, but was also helped with by the amazing variety of people there. There were members of the local police force, teachers, charity workers: even a group of 12 year old boys (They probably weren’t twelve – I’m TERRIBLE at estimating age, sorry guys!). It was wonderful to see such a diverse group of attendees – this is the best way to affect long term and wide reaching change.
Integrate’s work has been incredible. At the Emily Tree, we often talk about having a sense of political efficacy; if you want evidence of the possibility of that, you don’t have to look further than the girls at Integrate, and women everywhere like them who are fighting to improve the world that we live in.
If you are in the UK and are concerned about being cut, call the police on 999 or 101.
If you are abroad and require help or advice, call the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on +44 (0) 20 7008 1500