FGM - recognised in full as Female Genital Mutilation - is defined by the World Health Organisation as “all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
According to the WHO, between 100 million and 140 million women and girls are thought to be living with the consequences of FGM. It’s a long-standing issue that flutters in and out of the public eye. When the news of people performing the practice in the UK breaks, a few more people are made aware but the rush of recognition is rarely sustained and quite frankly, never enough. All the while, the stats quietly accumulate. Last year, between April 2016 and March 2017, the NHS identified 9,179 cases of FGM in England. That’s 9,179 identified cases. It is not inclusive of the women whose experiences are yet to surface.
Activist Mabel Evans was a college student when she heard about FGM from a tutor for the first time. “I had no idea what it was and considering how many millions of women and girls are affected globally, it was a horrible realisation that no one was talking or educating people about it”, she explains.
The Vavengers - a group committed to promoting awareness about FGM - was born out of a college project in 2013. Today, it is a response to the malignant issue that many turn their back on. “The Vavengers are breaking down the cultural umbrella that so many politicians in this country seem to use to turn a blind eye on the suffrage of these women and girls”.
Below we talk to Mabel, to find out more about The Vavengers, their belief systems and how she plans to use art as means of awareness.
Who are The Vavengers?
“The Vavengers formed in 2013 after I became aware of FGM for the first time. I was studying at college in a Film Studies class, when my teacher mentioned FGM. I couldn’t understand why no one had told us about FGM, we had no idea what it was, and considering how many millions of women and girls are affected globally, it was a horrible realisation to discover that no one was talking or educating people about it. In response to this, my friend (Kain) and I, created a short film as part of the same project and it has developed from there. During the filming process, we met with many inspirational FGM survivors and decided once the film was done, we were going to have a one-off fundraiser - with an auction, a raffle, comedy and music - to raise money that would secure the UK’s first anti-FGM billboard in London. We achieved our goal and last year billboards were placed around Islington and Ealing, with a helpline for girls at risk. Today, we host events around the country. I wanted to find a way to fundraise in an intimate manner - one that would allow guests to feel like they could be part of this community.”
Where did the idea come from to use art and music to tell stories of women affected?
“At the time, I was watching so many of my mates using music and performance to articulate something and it felt natural. We wanted to give artists a platform and an audience that would listen. Our events are a celebration of what can come out of collaboration and compassion. All the ticket proceeds go to the survivors and their charities, the events are also survivor-led as it is their story to tell. We, The Vavengers, just facilitate a space for them to educate and bring awareness to the issue. I strongly believe this isn't ‘someone else's problem’, it's not something that is happening far away and therefore not our concern. We must all support those who have been affected by such a violation of human rights. The aim of The Vavengers, is to support the survivors and bring FGM into the mainstream using music poetry and arts, the most universal means of communication.”
What are some of the common misconceptions of FGM?
“That this is only happening in rural towns on the other side of the earth. It’s not. It’s happening in UK too. The girls who have been cut elsewhere and are living in London have very few places to turn for mental and physical help, this is why Leyla Hussein’s ‘The Dahlia Project’ is so important.
"Some people believe that the women who cut their children are evil and torturous, but this is not the case at all, more often than not these mothers are loving, caring, inspirational women who have just been misinformed.
"One thing we are trying to do with ‘The Vavengers’ is break down the cultural umbrella that so many politicians in this country seem to use to turn a blind eye to. Culture is a beautiful celebration of life, it seems FGM has rather insidiously made its way into the understanding of culture. I do not think it should be regarded as a cultural or religious practice, it is a human rights violation and should be treated as such.”
How is the UK responding to anti-FGM campaigns?
“I think as a country there has been a shift in the last ten years, people are talking about FGM and becoming more aware, this is due to the tireless work of some truly inspirational women who have been campaigning for decades. There’s still a long way to go. The government need to address the magnitude of the problem, and most importantly give funding to the charities and clinics that are helping these girls and women. When FGM is not in the media, clinics are shut down. The exposure seems to come in waves, when its not in headlines the government cuts funding and the few places for the women to go have to close as a result, this is deeply upsetting. It is a severe form of gender inequality, and historically the government seems to not prioritise the rights of women and girls, so until that shift happens i don’t see a huge amount of change possible.”
How can we support The Vavengers?
“Funding for us is difficult, because we are not a registered charity, and don’t plan to be, it’s sometimes hard to approach donors and ask for money to put on our events when we don’t have a charity registration number. All of the ticket proceeds go directly to who we are fundraising for, so we rely on the generosity of wonderful artists and homeowners, it’s beautiful how giving people are when they understand the importance of what we are doing. If you have a large living room and want to help host a wonderful night of music and poetry all for a wonderful cause get in touch! We have such a great team working behind the scenes, so we try to limit the problems that may arise, there are definitely challenges, but when you have the fire in your belly to help these girls and women challenges are always manageable.”
Want to know more? Leyla Hussein, Hoda Ali, Mabel Evans and their fellow Vavengers invite you to 'The Exhibition' - an evening exhibiting artworks based around the female form and experience.