The ‘New Step for African Community’ (NESTAC) is a charity which was established to provide support for Africans and immigrants in the North-West of England. NESTAC was set up and is led by Peggy Mulungo, who is a trained psychotherapist and FGM activist. Their work on FGM among affected communities in Greater Manchester has developed innovative models of mental health care and FGM prevention.
Tackling FGM in Greater Manchester
The ‘Save our Sisters’ project delivered emotional support for women who had been diagnosed with FGM or who were at risk of it. Women were often identified through maternity services, and referred to NESTAC. Women often presented with complex needs, such as depression, isolation or life difficulties. Women are firstly assessed: those with deeper mental health needs are offered one to one support, and those who need better education about FGM are referred to a support group. Offering high quality mental health support is a vital part of prevention, as women develop their confidence to reject the practice.
With funding from Comic Relief, NESTAC developed a peer mentor programme for both women and men. They were trained for three full days on basic counselling and offering peer support, and all aspects of FGM. The programme really focused on recruiting people directly from affected communities, and this has really facilitated their work on prevention.
Peer mentors then conduct outreach within their communities. As Miriam, a peer mentor said, they often find that few people have talked to women and men directly about FGM, “Because if nobody speaks up, nobody ever will. Somebody has to come up there and stand, you know, make a move then other people can follow and break the virus or break the taboo.” The peer mentors focused on working with parents and children in schools, as well as women and families affected by FGM. The project also quickly learned that it was important to include men, who are often the gate-keepers in the family. Male peer mentors worked to firstly work with men, to talk about the harms that FGM caused on their married relationships. In this way, the peer mentors could gain access to the whole family, and offer support where it was needed.
Lessons Learned – What has worked well?
NESTAC learnt that it was very important to identify the right people to be peer mentors: those from affected communities, and who were directly affected by FGM. As Miriam explained, parents were often very welcoming to the peer mentors, having few sources of social support, “what works well is some parents who are very happy to discuss about this because they didn’t know who to talk to or open up to.” The peer mentors were also willing to take a long-term approach, repeatedly meeting with parents and offering support without forcing the issue.
The male and female peer mentors also clearly enjoyed learning from each other: “When we took the men on board and we had arguments, when the men had to say this and we had to say that, you know, we decided to agree, which was good. I’ll help you. Yes. I loved it.” The peer mentors are also often FGM survivors themselves, and are very strongly motivated to make a contribution to ending FGM, as Mariatu, who initially supported FGM as part of her culture until she worked with NESTAC, explained, “Because of everything I’ve been through, I don’t want my children going through that, so. If I understand that… and it’s my duty to explain it to other people.” She feels that women are now more empowered to resist wider family pressure to commit FGM.
Peggy Mulongo, the founder of NESTAC, feels that the project has developed a good model for community-based support, mental health counselling and FGM prevention. She welcomes the more recent focus on the mental, not just physical, effects of FGM on women, girls and their families, “But now everybody wants to do it which is brilliant because we are going to be able to share work. So it won’t be only me that will be doing it.”