Julie Barton is a campaigner against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Working between Minnesota and Somalia, Julie’s activism spans across different communities and cuts across borders in an unprecedented way. Activism and work of this kind comes with its own rewards and challenges. Julie shares her story with us.
Working on human rights and gender advocacy is actually my second career. I completed a degree in business administration in August 2012. I wanted to continue my education and started a Master of Liberal Studies program (MLS) in September, 2012. My expected graduation date is May 2015.
Shortly after I started the MLS program, I heard author Naomi Wolf speak about her book Vagina: a New Biography at the Minneapolis Public Library. She said, “If your goal is to break a woman psychologically, it is efficient to do violence to her vagina.” She gave a number of examples such as rape, other forms of sexual violence and then spoke about female genital mutilation (FGM). I knew vaguely of FGM at that point and wanted to learn more so I chose the topic of FGM for my capstone project. I was chilled by what I started seeing in my research.
In the spring of 2013 I reached out to Hilary Burrage in the U.K. I followed her on Twitter and asked if I could interview her. She is an advisor for The Guardian's FGM campaign and is writing her second book on the subject, focusing on the experience of survivors and activists. Her first book was about was about eradicating FGM in Western countries. She also collaborates with an informal group of professionals and community activists who seek to eradicate female genital mutilation, especially in the UK and other Western countries.
Hilary introduced me to Dr. Tobe Levin of Frankfurt, Germany. Dr. Levin has been called on as an expert on FGM by British and German Parliaments, the European Union and the Council of Europe. She is the co-editor of Empathy and Rage. Female Genital Mutilation in African Literature which was published in 2009.
Ms. Burrage and Dr. Levin have been so encouraging. They have answered my questions and introduced to me to many anti-FGM activists as I continued the research needed for my capstone project. As I near the completion of my program, my dilemma was what to do next. I have accumulated a lot of knowledge about FGM and wanted to help people.
Ahmed Hassan, of Action for Women and Children Concern (AWCC) in Somalia, approached me. He asked me to consider joining his efforts and giving AWCC an international presence. I am currently in the process of setting up a board of directors in the United States and setting us up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
My biggest key challenge is applying what I know about female genital mutilation and helping people both in Somalia and in Minnesota. The Twin Cities area (Minneapolis and St. Paul) has the largest Somali diaspora community in North America. Statistics show that 97% of Somali woman have most likely undergone the most severe form of FGM – infibulation. However, the Somali population is very tightly-knit and is unused to speaking about FGM to outsiders. One strategy I’ve used is to start speaking out at my college, Metropolitan State College in St. Paul. In a speech class, there were a few Somali people and they encouraged me to speak and to teach others about female genital mutilation, child marriages, and other harmful cultural practices.
I grew up in a middle-class suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota and now realize that I’ve had such a privileged life. I’ve recently become aware of some of the reasons it is hard to keep girls in school in Somalia and other countries. I read monthly reports on food security and water, sanitation, and hygiene… all issues that prevent children from being educated. A question that I have never had to think about is: Would you go to school during your period if there was no toilet?
The challenges many Somali women face on a daily basis are ones I’ve known nothing about. I was fortunate to be able to go to New York City and attend meetings at the United Nations during CSW59 - The fifty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women. The main focus of the session was on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which included current challenges that affect its implementation and the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women. I was able to attend sessions on female genital mutilation, child marriage, human rights issues, and many other topics. It’s given me a lot to think about and new direction on what steps to take with AWCC.
What are we ignoring in our work for women? This is a good question. I think to know the answer to that is to ask the women we work with what they need and listen carefully to their answers. We need to address their problems, not the problems that we, as outsiders, think are problems.
Eradicating poverty and hunger
AWCC’s mission is to eradicate poverty and extreme hunger, illiteracy, inequalities, and empowering women and children to reach their full potential. Sectors are: agriculture, food security and livelihoods, education, women advancement and empowerment projects, protection and human rights, SGBVs, HIV/AIDS, water hygiene, and sanitation. When I first read the mission and all of the sectors, I thought it was too much and now I realize that it isn’t. All are inner connected and to truly be able to help, we need to understand how tied together everything is.
My dream is to make it easier for girls and women to be educated. If we do not educate girls, we will never eradicate poverty.
A practice like female genital mutilation continues to thrive for a number of reasons. It’s a cultural practice; however, many believe it comes from religion, which is untrue. Common cultural reasons given are:
- It is done to control sexual desire to keep a girl from being promiscuous, men want virgins and moral wives.
- Undergoing female genital mutilation is often part of a ceremony to prepare a woman to be a wife and/or transition into adulthood.
- Girls who don’t undergo female genital mutilation can be thought of as “dirty” and can cause a girl to be ostracized in her community. There are pressures exerted on the families and the girls to continue this social norm.
To eradicate FGM, there is a need for educational programs for traditional birth attendants, midwives, healers, and other practitioners of traditional medicine, to demonstrate the harmful effects of female genital mutilation. Religious leaders, community leaders, and men also need to be involved to stop the practice at a grassroots level.
The Red Elephant Foundation is an initiative that is built on the foundations of story-telling, civilian peacebuilding and activism for gender sensitivity.
The initiative is titled "Red Elephant" to stand out as a vehicle that projects stories that must never be forgotten: stories that show you such courage that you should never forget, and stories that show the world such profound lessons that the world should never forget.
In doing so, the initiative aims at creating awareness and opening up channels of communication towards creating societies of tolerance, peacebuilding and equality.