By: A.M. Peabody
Last week, I shared with you Part One of what the Walk To End FGM means to me, by recounting the turn of events in 2014 when we gave birth to the 5K walk. This week, I will share with you what role the Walk To End FGM plays in the lives of the women with whom we service; and you will learn how we began to meet women that had experienced female genital mutilation (FGM). After our success with the first Walk To End FGM in 2014, it was evident that we would hold a second of such event the following year.
We were not as green in our planning process as we had been in 2014. We knew when to submit our permit application to the National Park Service a year in advance, and how to schedule the logistics meeting with them. We had established business relationships with service providers, such as tent rental, porta john rental, t-shirt order, generator rental to provide electricity; and we had supporters, sponsors, and participants from the previous year. There was a slight ease in the planning process in 2015. We had secured speakers for the day, volunteers, registrations were still coming in, and we felt we were able to relax. Since we had hosted our first FGM survivor as a speaker in 2014, we had invited Mariam Bojang, a Gambian survivor to share her story with the crowd in 2015. I had met Mariam earlier in the year when we both had been guests on an Al Jazeera TV Show to discuss FGM. Dr. Marci Bowers had also been a guest on that same show, who had been scheduled to be our Keynote Speaker that year.
As I sat at my desk pondering over our checklist, I felt pleased that there were not many pending items left. Then my phone rang, and it was a young lady who introduced herself; she told me that she was a survivor of FGM from Sierra Leone. She was interested in registering for the Walk To End FGM, and someone had referred her to me. She was also interested in receiving whatever service we offered to FGM survivors. We conversed for more than an hour. She was interested in the genital restorative surgery which she had heard Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation was sponsoring. I asked if she would like to share her story at our pre-walk event, and she readily accepted the invitation. That young lady was F.A. Cole. She was the fourth adult survivor of FGM whom I would meet who was openly willing to share her story with the public.
Rewinding a bit – 2015 was the year we had decided to honor a group of women that had made a difference in the lives of women and girls affected by FGM. We designed and packaged nicely printed paper awards to hand out to several women on the day of the walk, as part of the pre-walk program. After listening to F.A.’s story, I proposed that we add her to the list of honored women that year. I had only had a single phone conversation with the young lady, and we already had her on the program as a speaker, and one of the honorees. I had never done anything like it before but I had a good feeling about the decision; it was a leap of faith. That year, the event was covered by CBN Television from Southern Virginia. They had previously interviewed one of our guest speakers and awardees, Shelby Quast of Equality Now a couple of days prior to the event.
We had thought that the 2014 walk day had been blustering cold, but the 2015 walk day was far colder. Everyone was bundled up as they arrived, but the sun came out and provided warmth during the pre-walk program. When F.A. Cole took the podium, I had no idea what to expect because we had just met that same morning. I had never heard her deliver a speech before then. She began with a resounding “Good Morning” and what followed after her greeting was breathtaking. Her voice resonated as she told her riveting story from being molested as a child, to experiencing FGM at 11 years old, to being raped later in life, to her remorse for having an abortion, and then revealing that she was the mother of a 21-year old son. With the exception of having experienced FGM, the rest of her revelation was new to me. I was as speechless as everyone else in the audience. Anyone who has met F.A. Cole has to agree with me that she looks no more than 30 years old. She drew the attention of passersby and tourists who had nothing to do with the event. They all walked over to our site and listened intently to F.A. as she shared her unbelievable story. The volunteers later disclosed to me that the onlookers or uninvited guests walked up to the table and left cash donations after hearing F.A. Cole’s story. They had walked away with an earful of knowledge on something called female genital mutilation (FGM). That day was the birth of a lasting relationship between Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation and Cole. She was the first FGM survivor to begin calling me Ms. Angela, and referring to me as her mother. She set the tempo for the service we offer to FGM survivors today. Fast forward – F.A. Cole currently serves on our Board of Directors as the representative for FGM survivors, and she leads the special Survivor-Only Support Group in our organization. Two years later in 2017, F.A. would be the first woman whose restorative surgery was sponsored by our organization.
We had successfully hosted our second Walk To End FGM, and the momentum had escalated. The event had attracted the international audience, and the following year in 2016, we hosted a much larger crowd from various countries in Europe and parts of the United States. But among the hoopla and momentum, we still had the problem that inspired us to hold such an event in the first place; the continuing practice of FGM. It was clear to us and other advocates and activists that FGM was not going away. The following year in 2017, there were the alarming arrests by the FBI in Detroit, Michigan of a couple of doctors for practicing FGM on little girls in their clinic. We realized that a walk or a race against it would not send it away; however we had begun to raise awareness, especially here in the United States.
Anyone who knows me knows how passionate I am about the work we do at Global Woman P.E.A.C.E. Foundation (GWPF). When the subject of FGM comes up, I can go on for hours. I hold the work, the 5K walk, honoring people, and the organization dear to my heart. But the women and girls to whom we service are the dearest to my heart. They are an extended family to me. They refer to me as their mother, and their children call me their grandmother. I regard such an honor bestowed on me by the women and girls as the highest honor I could receive. I feel responsible for them; I love them from my heart, and I am committed to making myself available when they need me. When they cry to me, I console them; I pray with and for them; I offer hugs, jokes, and laughter when I think they need it. They all have 24/7 access to me whenever they need me. My work with GWPF extends far beyond the Support Group Workshop, the counseling, the surgery, and Walk Day. What the Walk To End FGM means to me is when we can bring like-minded advocates and activists together in a weekend from all over the world, and show the women and girls we service how important their well-being is to us.
Thank you for reading this week’s story. If you missed last week’s story, and would like to catch up, please let us know and we will send it to you. I hope you will be inspired to join us on Friday, October 18th at 950 New Hampshire Avenue, NW in Washington, D.C. at 6:30pm and on Saturday, October 19th at the National Sylvan Theater at the corner of Washington Memorial Drive, SW and 15th Street, SW in Washington, D.C. at 12:00pm. It is the Walk To End FGM, and this is what it means to me.
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