This week, we travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Geneva, Switzerland to introduce you to an extraordinary lady, Elisabeth Wilson. She keeps you fully engaged in the following exclusive. Relax and enjoy.
GWPF: What is the nature of your work?
Elisabeth Wilson: The Global Alliance against Female Genital Mutilation (GA-FGM) is a French NGO created in 2010 with an office in Geneva. After attending many conferences about FGM, the commemoration of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM as celebrated in Geneva, my companion and I came to realize two things: the FGM community was in search of more dynamic synergies amongst organizations and they were all complaining about the lack of visibility, communication, collaboration and specifically comparable scientific data. We assisted many times to annual meetings gathering FGM experts, the diplomatic community and concerned Swiss authorities invited by the same NGO. Something crucial was also missing: the presence of the general public.
Holger Postulart the other founder of the GA-FGM is a specialist in adult education and training; I am a former broadcast journalist. After several mandates as consultants at the World Health Organization in Geneva in Education and Communication, we both decided to create the GA-FGM. He is the Executive Director and I am the Chief of communications. So what should this Alliance be composed of? United Nations Agencies, big and well financed NGOs? No, we wanted to give a voice to the voiceless, meaning all grass-roots NGOs active on the field in Africa and across the world, with no communication capacity, no visibility, little access to internet or well-structured FGM platforms; NGOs willing to disseminate and share their results, best practices and therefore avoid duplicates. We noticed a critical lack of access to scientific resources, up-to-date data and comparable statistics. Moreover, the mobilization campaigns never really reached the general public. The FGM-fighting community needed a paradigm shift and a new collaboration approach, in order for competent small structures to be heard and be part of the FGM-fighting community.
I am proud to announce that the founding member of the Alliance is the Pastoralist Child Foundation in Kenya, founded by the American-Canadian humanitarian Sayyidah Garret.
GWPF: Why is Global Alliance against FGM a Canadian-German initiative?
Elisabeth Wilson: Holger Postulart is German and I am Canadian-Haitian. The DNA of our organization is imprinted by our professional duo and couple. Holger and I believe in the involvement of men and women of all cultures in the global fight against FGM. We are not involved in humanitarian affairs by opportunism, it runs in our blood. My father was a public health engineer at World Health Organization. He participated in the first humanitarian mission ever deployed in Africa, in Belgian-Congo where I was born. This historical contingent was mainly composed of Haitians. Haiti was at the time, the first non-European country capable of massively providing medical doctors, public health engineers, educators, nurses, epidemiologists, etc. in order to help alleviate the Belgian-Congo crisis and help the Congolese civil society. It was also the first time that Haitians were returning to Africa after centuries of brutal slavery, knighted as international public servants with PhDs and the diplomatic protection of the United Nations. That historical contingent was quite inspirational, during these very racist times. I was born in that volatile Belgian-Congo. Holger made his first serious contact with the humanitarian work at the age of 14 when his parents co-founded one of the first regional Amnesty International groups in Germany. He stayed with the group for several years and continued his humanitarian engagement during and after his studies in psychology and medicine, mainly for an association acting in the South African townships.
GWPF: Tell us more about Global Alliance against Female Genital Mutilation.
Elisabeth Wilson: The GA-FGM lays the foundation of its work on two pillars: culture, music and arts in its mobilization campaigns, and proposes global educational projects and technological driven field approaches to contribute to the acceleration of FGM abandonment. Each year we offer to the Geneva international community either unseen arts exhibition at the United Nations Office or academic activities such as organizing high-level meetings, symposiums, press conferences involving not only the experts, but also, the media and the general public. We are trying to think out of the box. We are the first organization which has introduced the Native peoples of Canada in the global fight against FGM. Thus, Great Chief Constant Awashish a francophone Chief of the Atikamekw Nation of Quebec became the first aboriginal Chief across the Americas to support the global fight against FGM. Mrs. Pat Halfmoon Bruderer of the Cree Nation of Manitoba, also one of the last master of the ancient art of Birch Bark Biting, honored us by becoming our Female Goodwill Ambassador in Canada. We were the first to organize on February the 6th 2014 an arts exhibition gathering Native Canadian and African artists at the United Nations, expressing themselves about FGM.
GWPF: What was the outcome of this innovative approach?
Elisabeth Wilson: Our innovative cultural approaches rapidly led to the official support of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, via the Swiss Commission for UNESCO, who do grant us annually with their patronage and logo, for all our communication, educational or cultural events. As for the academic side of our activities, we are trying to develop innovative approaches and accelerating strategies. Since our creation in 2010, we have been trying to create the first university Chair specializing on FGM and women’s uro-genital sufferance. Financing this highly complex project turned out being extremely difficult. Though our initiative was welcomed by the FGM scientific and grass-root community, it is quite difficult to gather the money to realize it. We are currently in search of patrons, philanthropists, financial partners, donors to help create this unique university Chair that could become a UNESCO Chair.
GWPF: What are the main goals of Global Alliance?
Elisabeth Wilson: Contribute to the total abandonment of FGM via a global educational/monitoring project and raise awareness about this cause at an unprecedented level. Again, since our foundation in 2010, we have been working on the creation of the first University Chair specializing on FGM. For that we multiplied various transdisciplinary activities. In 2014 in collaboration with Dr Charles-Henry Rochat of the GFMER (Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research) the Swiss specialist when it comes to repairing obstetrical fistula, one on the most horrific consequence of FGM. We co-organized with him a press event and conference at le Club Suisse de la presse in commemoration of the First International Day to End Obstetric Fistula.
In 2015, we commemorated the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, by organizing 2 major events:
1) A public debate at the Geneva Ethnographic Museum, gathering African and Aboriginal anthropologists, to confront patriarchal and matrilineal views and analysis about violent traditions against women and FGM.
2) A high-level meeting at the Palais des Nations gathering Dr Pierre Foldès, inventor the women’s reconstructive surgery, WADI a German NGO fighting against FGM in Iraq (Kurdistan), Pr Guyo Jaldesa of the African Coordination Center of the Abandonment of FGM, at the University of Nairobi, Pr Emmanuel Kabengele, University of Geneva and at the time acting Director the UNIGE’s Global Health Institute, Pr Abdoulaye Sow, a Mauritanian anthropologist and anti-FGM activist, president of the scientific committee of the research team on FGM at the University of Nouakchott (Mauritania) and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Center on Cultural Rights.
Activities like these are meant to facilitate the achievement of our main goals: enhancing the communication and collaboration between field actors, reinforcing scientific work on FGM with the scope of having a direct impact on the field, more specifically by having a more systematic evaluation of these projects. Altogether, this will considerably help FGM abandonment as well as optimizing the treatment and care for the FGM survivors.
GWPF: Your website mentions that FGM is the “Red-headed Stepchild” and the “Poor Parent” of the United Nations system. Would you kindly explain why Global Alliance terms it as that?
Elisabeth Wilson: In the meantime, we changed this passage, since in December 2012 United Nations voted the historical Resolution A/RES/67/146 banning FGM worldwide. With his Resolution calling for the intensification of global action to end FGM, this very harmful practice has gained importance for the United Nations. More than once the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made vibrant statements against FGM and exhorted civil society to help him in achieving its total elimination.
GWPF: Would you tell us about the annual rotating conference of Global Alliance?
Elisabeth Wilson: The organization of an annual rotating conference was one of the first ideas we had six years ago. The idea was to gather annually experts from all over the world, not only in Geneva. The ultimate goal was to develop trans-disciplinary approaches including anthropology, sociology, medicine, psychology, law, science and others. FGM is such a complex phenomenon; it needs to be addressed in an equivalent way. The lack of funding hampered us from realizing this ambitious idea but we managed to organize high-level meetings in 2014 and 2015 in Geneva. We are proud to say that our conferences were amongst the first with an audience equally composed by men and women, FGM experts or not.
GWPF: What are the plans you have in place for your mobile emergency units?
Elisabeth Wilson: This is another very ambitious project that we had in mind right from the very start. Knowing that especially in the rural areas the access to medical services is very limited, we thought of mobile clinics as the solution for the lack of treatment for FGM survivors. We wanted the mobile clinics to be equipped with medical and psychological personnel, who would patrol, disseminate and collect information in order to prevent, intervene or address other urgencies as well. This would be a project to be realized in cooperation with experienced organizations such as Médecins sans Frontières or Médecins du Monde.
GWPF: How do you think we should engage and include men and boys around the world in the quest to end FGM?
Elisabeth Wilson: The key role of men and boys in this matter is quite obvious. Their implication is essential. Gender equality should start at the youngest possible age. FGM and other violations of Human Rights need a part of the school education, both in developing and wealthy countries. We need a generation of young men that grew up with the ideals of gender equality, total refusal of all kind of gender-based violence and a healthy, respectful conceptions of sexuality. As for the men who are now adolescents or adults in FGM concerned or migration countries, they ought to be integrated in specialized educational programs. They need to be under controlled care in order for them to have access to information regarding FGM. Like religious and community leaders, men are also part of the solution to ending FGM. Finally, the fight against the practice will only be successful if it is conducted by men and women of all cultures, responding hand in hand to the United Nations Secretary General’s call for an unprecedented and international solidarity.
GWPF: You have some powerful ambassadors in your organization. What is their role in combatting FGM?
Elisabeth Wilson: The role of a dedicated Goodwill Ambassador is indeed quite powerful. It is designed to raise the visibility of a cause in uncharted territories to create more public awareness and therefore reinforce the participation of men and women of all cultures. A Goodwill Ambassador’s advocacy work will also help raise the donors’ interest. The GA-FGM is also observing some of the United Nations agendas. For example UNESCO has declared 2013-2022, the International Decade for the “Rapprochement of Cultures”. Responding to this appeal, we introduced the participation of Native Canadians in the cause. Pat Halfmoon Bruderer, is the typical example of an excellent Ambassador. She herself escaped from all the traditional violence afflicting native women and hampering their lives and communities, marked by the dreadful situation of some Canadian Indian Reservations. She decided to perpetuate good traditions, and became a master of the Aboriginal vanishing art of Birch Bark Biting, usually transmitted by women. Last time we heard from her she was heading to the North West Territories, between Yukon and the Nunavut to teach her art. She discussed about FGM with the local native women. Upset to hear that women could be subjected to such a violent tradition, their reaction was to ask Pat Bruderer what could they do to help their follow human beings in the South. So we know that the involvement of men and women of all cultures and the introduction of old peoples of the new and the ancient world is the key to the acceleration of FGM abandonment.
GWPF: Tell us about your awareness campaign, “Yes, You Can Say No – Picture It?
Elisabeth Wilson: Holger and I immediately understood the power of arts when it comes to communicating about a difficult cause. This was in 2011. I was looking on the internet for dedicated artists. A German-based collective came up. Being Canadian and French speaking, I was looking for artists originally from the Quebec province. The name of Patrick Gignac came up. He was a genuine, authentic defender of the cause, no judgement, no negative comments about these old traditions. I knew he was the one. Holger and I flew from Geneva to Quebec City. That man, who had never been to Africa, just felt the urge to help and do something for a simple reason; he has a daughter. He generously gave us his creation called “Excision”. I immediately came up with a slogan (and that was before the U.S. President Obama was elected), YES YOU CAN SAY NO-PICTURE IT!
The painting is a traveling art piece. It went to the United Nations headquarters in New York, the United Nations, UNAIDS, UNHCR in Geneva, UNESCO in Paris, it was held by ordinary and extraordinary people. The GA-FGM is trying to create the biggest chain of people saying NO to FGM. If you come across “Excision” please hold it! It was an event held by Maasai women in Kenya, thanks to the French NGO Terres de Couleurs. Dr. Michel Sidibé from Mali and UNAIDS Executive Director gracefully accepted to support our social media campaign by holding Patrick Gignac’s powerful painting.
GWPF: When you are not helping to lead the Global Alliance what do you do with your personal time?
Elisabeth Wilson: Truth be told, there is not much of a personal time. If you want to progress in this very difficult cause, it is rather a 24-hours job. This situation changed a bit when Holger and I had a son in 2014. He keeps us pretty busy and we have to manage our timetables differently. We named him Dag after Dag Hammarksjöld the United Nations second Secretary General and Swedish Diplomat, shot in his plane during the Belgian-Congo crisis. He was a visionary man who stood up for the rights of the feeble new independent states and refused to be ruled by powerful greedy Nations. He is the first international public servant who advocated for Gender Equality sixty years in advance. The UN Charter upheld the democracy of states. Hammarskjöld went a step further with the democracy of human rights – that is, the equal rights of men and women, independent of race, sex, language and religion. Had he not created his revolutionary Blue Helmets, my parents, my brother, my sister and I would have not survived during the political turmoil that ravaged the Belgian-Congo. We would have just vanished in a mass grave. The least I could do was to name my son after him. I hope our little Dag will do meaningful and important things, that he will always bear up our high family values and also that FGM will end with his generation.
GWPF: What was it like to grow up during decolonization times?
Elisabeth Wilson: As a child I grew up in the World Health Organization compound in Brazzaville, close to the WHO Regional Office. The dismantlement of African states and the decolonization process was still on its march and Apartheid was still one the most hateful and brutal segregation systems. Everything was so fragile. But, the United Nations recruited in its ranks, international public servants coming from all its Member States. So, Europeans had to learn to collaborate with highly educated non-Europeans. As children, we knew that our parents had created a new world. My best friend was half Chinese and half Danish. Ivan spoke 5 languages: Chinese, Danish, French, English and Lingala to make friends at school with Congolese kids. We were born and raised color-blind with rather a cult for cultural mixity and a deep respect for other people’s cultures. I remember feeling unfitted because I only could speak 3 languages; French, English and Haitian Creole. I added 2 more languages in between; Italian and Spanish.
GWPF: We ask this question in nearly all exclusives. Do you foresee a world free of FGM someday?
Elisabeth Wilson: Definitely, Yes! The movement against FGM becomes stronger and the international solidarity is growing. All the UN member states agreed in 2012 in banning FGM worldwide. Major steps were done in the past and more of them will be done in the future. We are not sure about the goal of ending FGM in one generation’s time; this seems to be quite too optimistic. Looking at the current level of FGM prevalence reduction, this is far too slow. UNFPA/UNICEF foresees a decline of the FGM prevalence in countries like Burkina Faso or Mali to 40% by 2020. That would be progress for the next five years, faster than the last three decades. Should this goal be achieved, then we would have good chances to eradicate FGM in one generation, at least on the African continent. In any case, the abandoning process needs to be accelerated; the field programs need to be properly evaluated so that we finally really know what works and what does not work. Based on this knowledge, the projects could be optimized, systematized and gain in impact.
GWPF: If so, what role do you foresee the Global Alliance playing in eradicating FGM?
Elisabeth Wilson: Our role is as described, as facilitators, as producers of accelerating strategies, as an organization that does what the great lady and pioneer Edna Adan Ismail asked western NGOs to do; support the work done in the field through efficient communication strategies and relevant collaborations regarding the development of FGM ending strategies and actions. Another important aspect is to broaden the horizon of FGM ending activities to those countries that are still neglected. In Indonesia alone more than 40 million women and girls live with the consequences of FGM, but no action is taken. We do not know what is going on in other Asian and Latin American countries. Work needs to be done in the Middle East, following WADI’s example. We know now that FGM is common in Iran and we can be sure that it occurs in many other places in the world. Ending FGM in one generation means to integrate all these countries and establish globally concerted action. That is why we named our organization Global Alliance against FGM.
Join us in next week’s edition when An Exclusive brings you another fascinating woman.