When I first thought of organizing and hosting a walk or a race against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), I was unsure of where to begin and how we would organize it. I made my proposal to the Board of Directors for their approval. They balked at me and said, “We have never done anything like it, and we are a small and new organization.” Anyone who knows me well knows that I do not give up easily, especially on things about which I am passionate. The work against FGM happens to be one of those things. I made my case to them, “True we have never organized such an event, but I was a walker in the Susan G. Komen’s ‘Race for the Cure’ for several years.” I had even helped to raise funds by getting my employer at the time to match each dollar I raised from local merchants for the cure of breast cancer. I was finally successful in convincing the board members to approve my proposal to host a race or a walk against FGM. They told me, if we were able to organize no less than 50 people to participate, we would continue and make it an annual event. It was a challenge, and I was determined to succeed with it.
I got to work, and with the assistance of a couple of the board members and volunteers, we outlined our plan to organize a 5K walk. We conducted research on how to plan and organize a race or walk. We made the decision to hold a walk-only as opposed to a race; a race can include walkers, runners, bikers, etc. We still had not decided on what to call the 5K walk; board members blurted out some names, but none of them really struck a chord with us. Then the name, “Walk To End FGM” suddenly came to mind, and everyone agreed that it was what we would use. It sounded as though the name had been used for years. We did prefer to keep it as simple as we could without complications. Working out the logistics was a challenge, but it was all part of organizing the event. We established a checklist, and everyone was assigned a responsibility on that list. Meeting and working with the National Park Service was a learning experience; we had no idea what was expected of us but we took their instructions and advice and used them to our advantage. We learned that the Park Service only allowed bottled water, granola health bars and bananas as edibles in the park. We utilized social media to help promote the event, and we arranged for a graphic designer to design a special logo that would identify the Walk To End FGM. We handed out flyers at area metro stations, and left flyers on cars in parking lots. We set up appointments with like-minded organizations and called on them to participate, sponsor or donate to the event.
The t-shirts were delivered only two days prior to Walk-Day; they were not pre-folded to be passed out on the day of the walk. I found myself folding hundreds of t-shirts for two days, while checking off items on the checklist, and packing everything we needed to be transported to the Washington National Mall. The walk was scheduled for Saturday, November 8, 2014 at 8:00 in the morning. We the organizers and volunteers were expected to arrive at the site by 6:00 that morning. It was a bitterly cold morning but we played music at the site, while we stuffed giveaway bags, set up the tents and prepared ourselves for the arrivals. Our first sponsors were Giant Food, Incorporated, Staples, City Gate, Coca-Cola, Brite Radio, Whole Foods, Press the President, Eye Images Media, and Natura Foods. Their logos and names were printed on the back of the t-shirts.
As the participants began to arrive, we tried to do headcounts but as our count exceeded the number 50, we began to celebrate. We had hit the required 50 mark and they continued to arrive and line up to claim their t-shirts and giveaway bags. Board members were giving each other high-five saying, “We did it!” Indeed we had done it; more than 250 participants showed up that early November morning. The cold did not dissuade them; they were there to walk and participate in something that had not been done in the U.S. prior to that morning.
I had an emotional moment when I looked across the National Mall, and saw the participants lining up to begin the 5K walk. I fought back my teary moment as I joined the group to walk. The walk was led by an 11 year old boy who had traveled from Indiana by road with his parents and a group from their organization, Hope 2 Liberia. Organizations and individuals joined us from New York, New Jersey, Indiana, West Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Florida, and Canada. The Media was represented and videotaped the walk and the entire post-walk program. They interviewed participants, board members, and the speakers of the day. We had special Media badges to identify them from the rest of the crowd. In spite of the fact that we were raising awareness of an atrocious practice on little girls, the day was a joyous one. Joyous that we had attracted and gathered more than 250 people; joyous that the public was actually learning about this heinous act; joyous that a Liberian young woman had just shared her story to the public for the first time, that she had survived FGM at the age of 8; and joyous that we had held our first Walk To End FGM.
Although we felt like we had broken the first barrier to informing the American public about something that was foreign to them, we were still hungry for more. We decided to request an October date for future walks, and not settle for a November date. We had discovered from the National Park Service that without submitting an application for permit a year prior, we would not obtain a preferred date for our event. Therefore we made a concerted effort to submit our application prior to 2015 for the second 5K walk. We knew that the Walk To End FGM would become an annual event, but we began to ask ourselves, “What’s next?”
After supporting and encouraging our first FGM survivor to publicly reveal and share her story on November 8, 2014, we knew there were many other survivors who needed help. He hoped that the Walk To End FGM would not only raise awareness for Americans, but would become a mean to attract FGM survivors to come forward and receive help. After all, without survivors and at-risk girls, there would not be a need for the Walk To End FGM. The reason why we were doing any of it was because of those women, young and old who had experienced FGM, and the girls to whom we could prevent it from happening. As the commendations came in for holding the successful 5K walk, I continued to remind our board members that this was not about us; that it was about the women and girls whose lives are affected by this archaic, heinous, atrocious, and unnecessary practice.
What the Walk To FGM means to me is far more than a 5K or public gathering of speeches and awareness. I want women to learn how to live their lives of post-FGM years in safety and confidence, without physical and psychological pain. I want little girls to live in safety without the suspense of not knowing when the day arrives for them to be taken away to a cutter. I want to see the end to female genital mutilation, when we will no longer need to hold the Walk To End FGM.
Next week, we will share part II with you, and hope this will inspire you to join us.
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