Challenging FGM from within the community: Mariatu’s story

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Last year, funding from Rosa enabled NESTAC (New Step for African Community) – a non-profit organisation that supports Africans and immigrants living in Greater Manchester ­– to launch a peer-mentoring programme that has led to vital community support work in the area.

Mariatu thought she’d be the last person on earth to advocate ending FGM. In her native Gambia and within her immigrated community in Salford, speaking about FGM is not only a taboo, but criticism of the practice is often seen as an attack on the wider culture that’s so fundamental to the community’s identity.

So when Peggy, project manager at New Step for African Community (NESTAC), visited her home and asked her if she wanted to attend a course on FGM awareness, Mariatu was fiercely sceptical. She agreed to go along ­– but with the aim of defending the practice as part of her home culture. Instead, her whole perspective on FGM was overturned as she understood the reason behind the pain and discomfort she’d experienced her whole life.

“How was I to know they were from FGM? Nobody told me,” Mariatu explains. “That’s when I realised, actually this is wrong. I started thinking: this is me, this is my friends, this is my sister.” The course empowered her to engage with the women in her community who had been affected by the practice ­but felt unable to seek support.

IMG_2755-1024x765Now, Mariatu is one of NESTAC’s appointed peer mentors, trained over a 12-week programme – solely using funding provided by Rosa ­– which hosted three different groups of between eight and 12 people in 2015. The programme covered the physical aspects of the practice and, crucially, the long-term psychological and emotional side effects related to it.

Equipped with the knowledge and basic counselling skills that she gained from the programme, Mariatu accompanies social workers on home visits to families within communities in Salford identified as high-risk for practising FGM. Her peer-mentor role involves bridging the cultural and linguistic gap between them by using her experience of being on both sides to relate with the women of these families. And every second Wednesday of the month, she assists in hosting a meet-up at Broughton Hub, Salford ­– mostly made up of women that Mariatu met during social worker visits. It’s a positive, supportive environment: “we all come together and we cook, we dance, and when we’ve finished eating we sit at the table and have a conversation for an hour. Sometimes Peggy comes in and has a one-to-one with some of the girls.” Ten women currently attend her monthly meet-ups, although the demand is much higher.

The presence of peer mentors makes a tangible difference in the community. “It’s really helping,” Mariatu says. “Some of these women are really isolated, some are asylum seekers because of FGM, and some have social services on their case – they need to get out and be with people.” Peer mentor-led meet-ups provide a safe space for women to congregate, and a platform from which women like Mariatu can address the highly sensitive, personal subject that is FGM.

Mariatu is proof that NESTAC’s grassroots model is a highly effective way to engage with the community and change mindsets, one by one. Her 14-year-old daughter, who was once intended to undergo FGM, will no longer experience what her mother did. “After the course, I did loads of research and learned so much about FGM that now, my daughter is not going to have it done. I realised that [FGM] is why I’ve always had this pain,” says Mariatu. “Do I need to put my daughter in that pain? No.”