Female Genital Mutilation in India
Female genital mutilation (FGM) in India is a well-kept secret. Indian girls as young as 7 years old suffer from this human rights violation. On a regular afternoon in Mumbai, locals swarm the streets, completely oblivious of the gross human rights violations devastating little girls in the dingy by-lanes.

Insia Dariwala and Sahiyo

A woman named Fatema experienced this horrifying practice when her aunt lured her out of the house under the pretext of a fun afternoon at the movies. She is the older sister of Insia Dariwala, who later co-founded an organization called Sahiyo with four other women due to the impact Fatema’s suffering had on her. Dariwala avoided FGM because her mother stood up against the practice when she discovered what had happened to Fatema. Sahiyo is now one of the leading Indian organizations striving to end the practice of female genital mutilation. Dariwala shared her older sister’s story and the issue of FGM in India in an interview with The Borgen Project.

What is Female Genital Mutilation?

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines female genital mutilation as procedures that partially or totally remove the external female genitalia or otherwise injure the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Female genital mutilation in India is known as “khatna.” At times, it involves removing the entire clitoris and the labia minor, and at other times, it may just include cutting off the prepuce.

Who Practices It?

Female genital mutilation in India exists among the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community as well as other smaller Bohra sub-sects including the Suleimani and Alavi Bohras. This community traces its ancestral and ideological roots to 10th and 11th century Egypt and Yemen. While it is a small community in India, it still amounts to more than 500,000 Indians.

In fact, a Sahiyo study found that 80% of girls in this community had undergone FGM. Moreover, 66% of them were 6 to 7 years old. Traditional cutters, also called “mullanis” (female Muslim religious leaders), performed most khatna procedures. However, healthcare professionals conducted FGM also.

Reasons Behind the Practice

Dariwala explained to The Borgen Project the reasons that many give for practicing FGM. Some say it is for hygienic purposes. Others cite practicing gender equality by circumcising both boys and girls. Some khatna proponents even claim it enhances sexual pleasure for the female. Some mothers believe that their daughters with FGM will not have extramarital affairs.

She emphasized that “through sharing of stories and other community engagement events, we can without a doubt say that female genital mutilation is done to control sexual urges and is one of the most common reasons stated for carrying out this practice.”

Sahiyo’s own survey corroborates these statements. Forty-five percent of Bohra community members believe FGM occurs to decrease sexual arousal. Other reasons community members gave were religious purposes, maintenance of traditions and customs, the possibility of gaining respect from the community, ensuring “taharat” (religious piety and purity) and discouraging promiscuity and masturbation.

The Reason for the Secrecy

Perhaps India has kept FGM in the dark partially because religious leaders have wanted it that way. For example, in 2016, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the religious head the of Bohra community, stated that “the act” must continue “discreetly for girls.” Also, khatna is not illegal in India.

Dariwala emphasized that “We kept the violation of our human rights a secret. Now, we are finally bringing it out of the darkness.”

The Role of Islam

Dariwala noted that khatna is actually a pre-Islamic practice. Not all Islamic groups practice female genital mutilation, and some non-Muslim groups observe the practice. The Quran, the holy book of Islam, does not mention it. However, the Daim al-Islam, a religious text that the Bohra community follows does endorse this practice.

On the contrary, there are Muslim religious leaders including Syedna Mufaddal’s rival Taher Fakhruddin who denounced khatna for children and suggested abolishing FGM. Dariwala underlined that since this practice predates even the origin of Islam, India needs to tackle this issue not by attacking any faith but rather by viewing it as a human rights issue.

The Possibility of Eradication

Organizations like Sahiyo have worked tirelessly to make this a possibility. Sahiyo has conducted conferences and workshops to spread awareness globally. It has also given digital platforms to women to share their experiences and trauma. Sahiyo also believes in the art of storytelling. It uses theatre, films and magazines to spark discussions about gender-based violence. It also conducts media training for journalists to teach them how to effectively report on the practice of FGM. Third, Sahiyo conducts research and data collection.

Eradication of female genital mutilation by 2030  is a United Nations (U.N.) Sustainability target. To eradicate female genital mutilation in India and Southeast Asia, Dariwala and Sahiyo are urging the U.N. to build on the momentum of groups like Sahiyo. There needs to be exponentially more data collection and survivor support.

With leaders like Insia Dariwala spearheading the eradication effort regarding female genital mutilation in India, people will certainly gain more awareness of the issue. Additionally, with leaders like Dariwala at the helm, the 2030 U.N. target could become a reality.

– Iris Anne Lobo
Photo: Flickr

Female Empowerment in India
Danielle Chiel is an Australian philanthropist who founded The Artisan Nation in 2020. This is the second organization that Chiel has founded. Additionally, she strives to improve female empowerment in India. Chiel started knitting at the age of 10. She realized that she could teach her craft to women and subsequently help improve their lives.

The Artisan Nation

The Artisan Nation is an organization working in India. This organization defines itself as a “nation that is not bound by geography, language or culture.” Rather, it is one that is united “by passion, creativity and talent.” Furthermore, the Artisan Nation has one unifying goal to increase the health and wellness of women and people in the villages the organization works in. It accomplishes this in four ways:

  1. Providing face masks for the women and their families.
  2. Delivering fresh drinking water to villages.
  3. Helping the villages receive more balanced foods in local stores.
  4. Offering medical assistance such as workouts, dietitians, psychologists and blood tests.

The Artisan Nation also strives to establish financial independence for women by providing consistent work, smartphones, lessons on how to use the phones and financial literacy courses.

The organization currently supports five villages in Southern India. However, Chiel hopes to reach more in the future. Each village needs $10,000 to support the workers and provide “balanced” lives for everyone in the village. While companies can get involved by cooperating as members of the Artisan Nation, Chiel encourages individuals to get involved as well. Donating just $10 can help fund a village.

KOCO

Chiel first created the organization Knit One Change One (KOCO) to improve female empowerment in India. It employs women in Tamil Nadu, India and provides them with classes in English, mathematics and knitting. These women hand-knit garments for 12 brands from various countries around the world. Since these jobs offer full-time employment, KOCO gives these women the opportunity to be financially independent and support their families. KOCO employed 200 women in 2019, but Chiel hopes that the organization will eventually employ 40,000 women.

Qiaoxifu in China

While Chiel fosters female empowerment in India and poverty reduction with her programs, other initiatives are using textile work to do the same. China’s program called Qiaoxifu has employed over 120,000 impoverished women in the textile, tourism and e-commerce sectors. In one sewing factory in the Henan Province, the workers make about $440 a month. Whether it is in Chiel’s organizations or the Qiaoxifu program, these initiatives help women become more financially independent, empowered and able to support their families.

– Sophie Shippe
Photo: Flickr

Female leaders in India
In 2020, Priya Periyasmy became the leader of her village council in Tamil Nadu, a South Indian state that 68 million people populated. Despite gender quota laws in village council elections, female leaders in India are the vast minority and women must fight to do their jobs in a hostile work environment. Additionally, women who run for office often face sexual harassment and slanderous attacks. Following Periyasmy’s brave example, 15 female village council leaders in Tamil Nadu state have filed complaints about discrimination in the past six months.

Village Councilwomen Fight Discrimination

Periyasmy tolerated daily annoyances, with other council members not greeting her and asking her to sit on the floor during meetings. She initially ignored the discrimination, but the abuse she faced interfered with her ability to work. The panchayat vice-president regularly threatened her and once attacked her for sitting on a chair at work. Periyasmy went on strike and organized a sit-in protest with her husband. She and 15 other Dalit women in the same situation are demanding action under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Dalit female leaders in India face heightened discrimination. They belong to the lowest caste in India’s social hierarchy.

In another village in Tamil Nadu called Attupakan, V. Sasikumar quit his factory job to support his mother when she became the first female Dalit village council president. After other members stopped her from talking at meetings and hoisting the flag on Independence Day, she asked the Madras High Court to protect her family.

Sasikumar points out the daily wage earner status of his parents. After the struggle of getting into a leading position, his mother now faces discrimination. Other council members would not allow her to do her job. Still, she has the full support of her family.

India reserves half of each state’s village council posts for women, resulting in the election of 1 million female village councilors. However, proposals for similar legislation for state and federal elections exist for 20 years already. The bills did not pass yet. The bipartisan Girls LEAD Act challenges this, increasing global female participation in democracy, human rights and governance.

Girls LEAD Act

About 132 million girls between 6-17 years old are not enrolled in school and only 24% of all national parliamentarians are women, which are two highly connected problems. Women largely have underrepresentation in politics, allowing men to sway important decisions, many of which only women. Through U.S. foreign assistance initiatives, the Girls LEAD Act identifies and addresses barriers to female political participation, providing support for civil society organizations that women lead. The act ensures that each foreign organization engages girls under 18, introducing them to political leadership early.

Promoting girls’ education and political engagement will reduce violence against women and transform more societies into democracies. Women’s leadership supports democracy through cooperation between parties and the understanding of citizens’ needs. According to research, female inclusion in peace negotiations decreases corruption. Additionally, the likelihood of childhood marriage will decrease by 5% for each year of a girl’s continued secondary schooling.

Normalizing women’s leadership in politics will break the stigma and negative cultural attitudes behind it, which is the root of the bigotry that Periyasmy faces. Passing the Girls LEAD Act would protect marginalized politicians, including the 16 female leaders in India who actively fight discrimination.

– Rebecca Pomerantz
Photo: Flickr

Female entrepreneursThroughout the world, women encounter obstacles to entrepreneurship as a result of gender-based violence, pay disparity and early pregnancy. However, in recent years, female entrepreneurs are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs, regardless of ethnicity.

5 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch Out For

  1. Victoria Awine
    Victoria Awine has worked at a cocoa plantation in Sefwi Asawinso, Ghana since she was little before owning and operating her own three-hectare land in 1980. After enrolling in the Cargill Cocoa Promise, a program which promotes female cocoa farmers to become business owners, in 2014 Awine became a leading entrepreneur in her community. She has broken barriers to female business leadership, rejecting cultural norms by showing how she can succeed as a business leader, a mother of four, and an involved community decision-maker. Since joining the Cargill program, Awine has seen her cocoa farm’s revenue increase threefold.

  2. Njeri Rionge
    Njeri Rionge, a serial entrepreneur from Kenya, has started several multi-million dollar companies in quick succession. She started her first business at 19, selling yogurt in Nairobi, Kenya. Afterwards, she went on to sell clothes while maintaining other small businesses. Rionge also founded Wananchi Online, making her one of Africa’s leading female investors in the IT sector. Rionge later went on to be the founder of digital marketing company Insite, consulting agency Ignite, healthcare consulting agency Ignite Lifestyle and start-up incubator Business Lounge. “I believe Africa is the next economic frontier,” said Rionge in an interview with Forbes.

  3. Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
    Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, an Ethiopian entrepreneur, started a sustainable footwear company, SoleRebels, when she realized the great artisan potential of the members of her community. SoleRebels has not only had great success in Africa, but has flagship stores worldwide. The shoe itself is modelled after a style commonly worn in Ethiopia. Materials are also locally sourced in a combination of recycled and organic material, like the Ethipian Koba plant, to make an eco-friendly shoe. Additionally, the production process of the shoes makes SoleRebels the first footwear company certified by Fair Trade.

  4. Nilda Callanuapa
    Nilda Callanupa, a female entrepreneur from Chinchero, Peru, is the founder of the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales de Cusco. Additionally, she is an author, speaker and expert in textiles. As a child, Callanuapa was responsible for tending her family’s sheep and weaving. Spending time in the field and learning about weaving designs, Callanuapa became interested in the history of Peruvian textile. So when she met an ethnographer as a teenager, and with the support of her community, Callanuapa attended college and determined to preserve and honor the tradition of textile in Peru. She is one of the world’s foremost experts on the subject of Peruvian textile weaving and has greatly contributed to the effort to preserve these textiles and its history.

  5. Oum Ali
    Oum Ali, a Syrian refugee and mother of six, started a small restaurant in Lebanon, employing other refugees like herself to feed many other community members. Ali started running her own business after inflation in Lebanon caused prices to rise higher than they had been in Syria. Looking to feed her children and having confidence in her home country’s cuisine, Ali rounded up a group of fellow Syrian women and set out to work. “My dream is to see a lot of Syrian women working and making their own money,” she said in an interview with BBC.

    These five female entrepreneurs demonstrate courage, perseverance and innovation in their approaches to business. Moreover, each of these five female entrepreneurs share a focus in community building and cultural conservation efforts. Surmounting gender-based obstacles among others, these entrepreneurs rise to the occasion for themselves and their communities, serving as excellent examples of leadership and strength.

Elise Ghitman
Photo: Wikimedia