By Anna Hannon
Some months ago Mary Noble, Lucinda Chapman and I went to meet Ms Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse, and Yasmin, part of the small team of women who manage the remarkable organisation that is FORWARD. Working from a large open plan office, packed with files and books, in North West London, FORWARD run an international non-governmental organisation that works to advance the sexual and reproductive health and human rights of African girls and women, globally.
It was established in 1983 in the UK in response to the emerging problems caused by female genital mutilation (FGM). Since that time FORWARD has been working to eliminate the practice and provide support to women affected by FGM. At their twenty-year review they also incorporated into their mandate other issues allied to FGM, in particular, child and forced marriage.
Adwoa Kwateng-Kluvitse, the Director, is a professionally trained social worker; a number of years ago she was invited by the founder Efua Dorkenoo OBE to come and work for FORWARD. Adwoa is a warm lady with a sharp mind and intellect which she uses to manage FORWARD’s many projects. FORWARD has been influential in breaking down the walls of silence surrounding FGM and in the UK it has led the way in pushing for a legislative framework to be used as a tool towards abolishing FGM. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 was passed primarily as a result of their lobbying. The Female Mutilation Act 2003 went one stage further in that it made it illegal to take girls abroad for genital mutilation. A major aspect of FORWARD’s work is raising awareness in communities in the UK, particularly in Cardiff, Birmingham, London and Glasgow, about the implications of this legislation. In October 2006 another UK legal milestone was achieved by immigration lawyers and refugee groups when a woman who feared she would be subjected to FGM if she was returned to Sierra Leone had her asylum appeal upheld by the law. This now means that ‘gender based persecution’ will be readily recognised as a valid basis for asylum under the UN refugee convention, alongside persecution on account of race, religion, nationality and political opinion.
The list of FORWARD’s achievements is huge and their schedule of current activities both in the UK and globally is extremely impressive. We cannot do justice to their full scope and therefore refer you to their website http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/ for a full appreciation of their work. However, to give you a flavour, some of their current UK projects include:
Work in partnership with the police. This began in 2004 when the London Metropolitan Police identified a specific Detective Inspector as the force’s focal person on FGM. A community meeting was organised by the Met, FORWARD and Somali Human Hope and brought together Somali men and women and religious leaders to discuss the range of issues surrounding FGM with particular emphasis on the 2003 legislation and its implications for parents and carers. The original D.I. has now passed her work on to a team named Operation Violet which responds to faith and culture related forms of child abuse and this is working on many levels to prevent the abuse taking place and where necessary to take legal action.
On 6th February 2007 in recognition of the International Zero Tolerance Day to FGM, FORWARD organised a training day at the Central Mosque, London. Most of the participants were Muslims and many were community and faith leaders, including Imams. One of the recommendations of this event was that Imams were encouraged to raise issues of gender based violence, particularly FGM and child marriage in their sermons and Friday prayers.
The ‘Young People Speak Out Project’ was launched in August 2006 with a consultation meeting with a number of young people. The aim of the project is to provide a safe place where black, minority and ethnic youths can articulate their views and concerns and receive training about gender based violence, particularly FGM and child and forced marriage, the ultimate aim being that these young people will become Peer Educators. The project is ongoing and is now entering its second phase and is very successful at all levels. This is clearly a very important project and one that offers great hope for the future.
Whenever comment, counsel or advice is needed, people turn to FORWARD. They are regularly consulted by, for example, other organisations seeking to influence the same agenda—those making TV programmes which highlight FGM, whether fictional or factual; journalists, and young women facing pressures from their families to undergo FGM or to undertake a forced marriage, who need counselling. During the few hours we were there the phone rang constantly, proof that FORWARD’s knowledge and assistance is much sought after.
I first read about FGM in Waris Dirie’s book, ‘Desert Flower’. My education continued at the Feminenza hosted conference in Nairobi in January 2006, when Agnes Pareiyo, from the Tasaru Girls’ Rescue Centre, Narok presented a session on the three levels of FGM that are practised in Kenya. Many of the delegates, particularly the men, were learning for the first time about the horrific physiological and psychological impact of this practice, and the feeling of shock in the room was palpable. For me to hear about it in an African context was one thing but until visiting FORWARD I was unaware of the extent of it in the UK and it was indeed a ‘wake-up’ call about what is happening in my own country. There is however a great deal of hope for ‘agents of change’ such as FORWARD in that the policy of leaving immigrant communities to follow their own traditions, whether for good or ill, is now increasingly being challenged. The validity of any tradition needs to be considered from the standpoint of respect for the sanctity of each human life.