AHA Foundation recently received the news that we have won a 3-year federal grant from the Department of Justice to fight FGM in Chicago North Side. Our project, Widening Engagement and Support to Tackle the Oppressive Practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Chicago North Side (WE STOP FGM/C Chicago North Side), was spearheaded by AHA Foundation Senior Consultant Lisa Brett. Here she tells us how this groundbreaking, first-of-its-kind program in the U.S. will provide help and support for an estimated 3,400 women and girls in the Chicago area.
AHA Foundation: Can you tell us why and how this Chicago program was created?
Lisa Brett: Until now, training for frontline professionals about FGM/C has been sporadic and piecemeal. Usually, information has focused on raising awareness about this form of child abuse, which is important but far from adequate. Across the country, there has been very little if any hands-on support for girls at risk and survivors of FGM/C.
Counselors, teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, and law enforcement have been ill-equipped with both knowledge about the serious harms caused by FGM/C, and the best ways to support the more than 513,000 women and girls who the CDC estimates have undergone or are at risk of FGM/C across the nation. We need direct provision of services for these girls and women, and those on the frontline, who, while doing the best they can, can’t help them properly without holistic training.
At AHA Foundation, we support survivors and hear their stories all the time, and of course Ayaan Hirsi Ali, our founder, has told of her own, devastating experience of FGM/C. So we know how horrific this practice is for those who undergo it. It was out of this experience and with the knowledge that frontline service providers needed more support to tackle FGM/C that we decided to create this training. At AHA Foundation we recognize that support for women and girls must be provided by trusted professionals at the community level—change only comes when we work with communities to educate and equip them. Being there, on the ground, is essential to combatting FGM/C.
AHA Foundation: Tell us briefly about how you managed to win this amazing victory: 3 years of federal funding to combat FGM/C in Chicago North Side!
Lisa Brett: Through many years of trial and error, human rights and public health organizations have worked out strategies for promoting cultural shifts to protect women and girls. The fact that we have received 3 years of federal funding for our program is a sign of confidence in our ability to deliver real, lasting change on the ground. I couldn’t be more proud of this achievement.
AHA Foundation: Tell us about the WE STOP FGM/C Chicago North Side program itself: how will it actually impact people on the ground?
Lisa Brett: The program will work with Chicago North Side frontline service providers to raise awareness of FGM/C within their organizations and to build prevention and response systems into their daily practices. This means that rather than FGM/C only being dealt with after the fact by service providers with little knowledge of this dangerous practice, FGM/C will be fought at various prevention levels: cultural, social, medical.
With the new awareness and tools provided by the program, service providers will be able to train other organizations and their own new recruits, meaning that FGM/C awareness will be embedded within service providers for the indefinite future.
Most importantly, the program will have significantly increased access to direct physical, psychological, and criminal justice support for the estimated 2,760 FGM/C survivors and 690 girls at risk in Chicago North Side.
With this information, support can be targeted more efficiently, in schools, hospitals and homes. Hopefully this will mean that the day we see an end to FGM/C in the U.S. comes sooner.”
AHA Foundation: You used sophisticated data analysis to identify North Side FGM/C hotspots and trends in the types of cutting practiced in these hotspots. How has this new data-led approach changed programs like this one?
Lisa Brett: It’s been incredibly exciting to see how our ground-breaking statistical analysis of FGM/C in the U.S. provides the project team with a detailed understanding of this dangerous practice in North Side neighborhoods and particularly at-risk groups within them, including the types of FGM/C likely to be practiced and the average age when a child is most likely to be cut. By using the latest methods in data science, AHA Foundation is truly at the forefront of the fight against FGM/C in the U.S.
With this information, support can be targeted more efficiently, in schools, hospitals and homes. Hopefully this will mean that the day we see an end to FGM/C in the U.S. comes sooner.
AHA Foundation: You worked with Heartland Health Centers and Forma Psychological Services to create this training program. What have they brought to the program?
Lisa Brett: Yes, our partners for this program have been invaluable and are essential to our successful program delivery. Heartland provides accessible, affordable healthcare to low-income people, serving nearly 30,000 North Side residents per year across 18 clinical locations. With their knowledge of the local area and communities, particularly the refugee and immigrant populations, AHA Foundation has received unprecedented access to communities where FGM/C is prevalent. Their expertise has proven crucial; with such direct access on the frontlines, AHA Foundation’s program will make a real difference.
Forma has provided specialized mental health clinical services to women adversely affected by FGM/C for eight years and facilitated an FGM/C survivors’ support group in Chicago. They will be providing specialist training to mental health professionals in FGM/C, increasing local access to appropriate psychological support.
AHA Foundation is honored to be partnering with each of these exemplary organizations.
AHA Foundation: And what has AHA Foundation brought to this partnership?
Lisa Brett: While we are best known for our legal advocacy promoting legislative change against FGM/C, we are also involved on the frontlines. Over the years, AHA Foundation has trained more than 3,100 frontline professionals in FGM/C including social workers, medical professionals, police officers, teachers, and law professionals. We were the first organization to develop online training about FGM/C and risk assessment for medical professionals approved by the American Medical Association; this training is available on their Educational Hub.
With almost 15 years of experience and engagement in fighting FGM in the U.S., with our founder being one of the most well-known survivors of and advocates against FGM/C, with our battles in the legislative arena, with our frontline services, AHA Foundation is a leader in the fight to end this abuse in the U.S. We’re proud to be able to use our expertise on the ground in Chicago.
I hope this Chicago project will not only effectively reduce FGM/C at a community level in Chicago North Side, but also be taken up by service providers across the U.S. who work with at-risk communities. This is a great first step to ending the abusive practice of FGM/C across the country, forever.”
AHA Foundation: Oluwadamilola Alabi is to be the program’s coordinator. Tell us about her and what her role will be on the frontlines.
Lisa Brett: We’re thrilled to have Oluwadamilola as the program coordinator. A former fellow of our campus program, she brings to us a broad experience in public health: she currently works in psychiatric care in the North Side and is completing her master’s degree in Public Health. She also worked with the Nigerian government’s Department of Public Health to provide community outreach in Ibadan, Nigeria. She has great knowledge of FGM/C and building community relations. There is no better candidate to lead this program than her.
AHA Foundation: What do you expect the impact of this program to be over the next 3 years? Do you have hope that we’ll see more programs like this across the country?
Lisa Brett: Yes, we hope to see more programs like this across the country. This federal funding is important because it will empower AHA Foundation to have a direct impact on FGM/C-prevalent communities—not just temporarily, but into the future, perhaps in time bringing on a cultural shift where we will see FGM/C completely eradicated. This is the first step to realizing that dream for this particular community, and, indeed, if these steps are replicated, it is a critical step to realizing that dream in ALL FGM/C-prevalent communities across the U.S.
AHA Foundation: Finally, could you tell us why this program matters to you, as an individual who has spent a lot of time and effort on it?
Lisa Brett: I first became familiar with the practice of FGM/C as a teacher in Nigeria. Returning to my home country of England, I began working for the national charity Victim Support and eventually helped to found the UK’s National FGM Centre. My passion has always been for early intervention and prevention work.
FGM/C has recieved a lot of attention in Europe, much more so than it has in the U.S., and I was very surprised how little was known about the practice when I first moved to the States. I hope this Chicago project will not only effectively reduce FGM/C at a community level in Chicago North Side, but also be taken up by service providers across the U.S. who work with at-risk communities. This is a great first step to ending the abusive practice of FGM/C across the country, forever.