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End FGM Canada Network launched the foundation module of its new training tool a day after the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation.

Advocacy group launches training aimed at preventing female genital mutilation

Survivor says open dialogue is key to change the outdated practice

By Regina Ng , in City , on February 23, 2023

A small group of women across the country working to prevent female genital mutilation has unveiled an interactive learning tool to protect survivors and girls at risk.

The training tool developed by the group called End FGM Canada Network is a combination of educational materials, online quizzes, and webinar events.

It targets professionals working closely with communities impacted by female genital mutilation — elementary and high-school teachers, healthcare workers, child protection workers and law enforcement officers — to spot and protect mutilated girls and those at risk.

“We believe this will be a game-changer as we can educate masses of people across sectors in a short time,” said Giselle Portenier, a co-founder of End FGM Canada Network. “People are taking notes and getting educated. And knowledge and education are the beginning of change.”

The federal government gave the project $530,000. The four modules in the learning package aim to build a system of support among social agencies for women harmed by the practice. The freshly launched foundation module is available for free online.

After completing a prerequisite course, participants advance to a more in-depth corresponding module designed for their respective professional group so they can provide trauma-informed and culturally sensitive care to survivors.

“What is happening in Canada is a culture of silence and silencing,” Portenier said. “Canadians are afraid to tackle this issue because they believe they might be called racist or they may be accused of intervening in other people’s culture.”

End FGM Canada Network co-founder Giselle Portenier and Miss Klitty, a clitoris-shaped character the advocacy network used to normalize conversation on female genitalia.

Canada is one of only two western countries that does not collect data on survivors despite having multiple diaspora communities where female genital mutilation is known to be practiced.

The End FGM Canada Network estimates there are more than 100,000 females living with female genital mutilation across the country. Some of them were cut after coming to Canada. Many chose to stay silent. The advocacy group has heard of cases like that from British Columbia and Ontario. 

It took Toronto-based author and psychotherapist Farzana Doctor a long time to speak against the practice as a survivor.

Born to Dawoodi Bohra Muslim expatriate parents from India, Doctor migrated to Canada when she was just a baby. In orthodox Bohra communities, elders would enforce female genital mutilation on girls when they reached the age of seven.

“There are many stories where the family may have gone back to India. The parents don’t even know about it. A well-meaning aunt might have taken them to be cut,” she said.

The 52-year-old said mothers and girls would go along with the custom practice preached by the elders without understanding the possible physical and psychological harms of allowing it.

It wasn’t until after talking to a psychologist and other survivors, the kind of support system the new learning tool seeks to foster, that Doctor managed to grapple with the pain and became an activist. She stressed the importance of education through a co-ordinated effort to teach people that female genital mutilation is harmful and unnecessary. 

“(Female genital mutilation) involves a lot of people acting together. And so to counter it, we also need a community response,” Doctor said. She added that the practice had been allowed to continue because there was a taboo of speaking out.

However, she is witnessing a change.

“My own grandmother, my maternal grandmother, when me and one of my aunts started talking about this stuff, she was really listening very closely. And she is someone who would never challenge it before,” she said. “But when she heard us talking about it, she was like, ‘Okay, you are making sense.'”

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is a 96-year-old woman who is allowing us to use her own image in our campaigns.’ We don’t have the stats to know what kind of decrease we are seeing, but we know that people are talking and they weren’t talking before.”