Tag Archive: United Nations


*WARNING* GRAPHIC DETAILS

Some call it female circumcision, others call it female genital cutting. In its most severe form, the clitoris, inner and outer labia of a girl’s vagina are cut (with a knife or razor) and then crudely sewed up, leaving just a small hole – the size of a matchstick head – for the urine and menstrual blood to pass through.

Photo: WorldPulse.com

Using a razor to cut (Photo: WorldPulse.com)

Although these forms of “cutting” may vary in severity depending on the cultural rituals of different communities, the term I would choose to use when I talk about this – and which is widely used – would be Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

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Author Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Author Ngugi wa Thiong’o

My first brush with this vague concept of FGM happened when I was 15. In school, we read a Literature classic, written by African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, entitled The River Between.

Kenya is a world away from Singapore. And back in the 1980s, before the invention of the Internet, I knew close to nothing about its history, culture or rituals. This work of literature threw open my mind to realities beyond my own.

One of the themes in Ngugi’s book was circumcision. The word he used specifically was “female circumcision”. But juxtaposed with Waiyaki’s circumcision – which he looked forward to because it marked his final initiation into manhood – Muthoni’s circumcision was dreaded and eventually led to her death.

For her, it wasn’t just a nick in the flesh, as it was for the boys. For her (and other girls like her in Kenya, and Somalia, and Ethopia, and other African nations), the removal of the clitoris and labia led to bleeding, infection, chronic pain, cysts and often to death.

It’s hard not to question if the term “female circumcision” is misleading.

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Last night, I attended a film screening and panel discussion on a film called Desert Flower. Organised by the Singapore Committee for UN Women and SMU’s Shirin Fozdar Programme, this powerful film traces the extraordinary journey of Waris Dirie, a Somali desert nomad-turned-supermodel who is now a UN spokesperson campaigning against female genital mutilation.

At the age of 5, her mother brought her out into the desert to be cut by a traditional circumciser. It was a poignant scene in the film for me because the procedure was performed (on what – to me – looked liked a sacrificial rock altar) by a woman on a little girl. There were no men around. It was a ritual performed by women on women.

Why? Because only a “cut woman” is believed to be clean. In fact, it is supported by both women and men in countries that practise it – particularly by the women – who see it as a source of honour and authority, and an essential part of raising a daughter well.

Desert Flower has an R-rating. Here’s the trailer:

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and Middle East where FGM is concentrated.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

(Source: World Health Organisation, Updated Feb 2014) 

About 125 million women and girls in Africa and the Middle-East have undergone FGM. Among them, about 8 million have experienced the most severe form of mutilation (Type III), which is common in countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

But what I learnt from the panel discussion that followed the film screening last night was that FGM happens not just in Africa and the Middle-East but in First World countries as well. Asia is not spared. Even more shocking, FGM happens here in Singapore.

Panel Discussion after the screening of Desert Flower

Panel Discussion with anthropologist Dr Dhooleka Raj and Minnie from UN Women

Maybe because FGM is so foreign and far-removed from my daily circumstance, it’s hard for me to connect with it on a very personal level. But one thing that Minnie from UN Women said struck a personal chord: In the case of Waris Dirie, who was cut and sewn up till what was left was a hole the size of a matchstick head, this hole caused her monthly periods to last 3 weeks.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Minnie from UN Women reveals that FGM happens here in Singapore too.

Honestly, I dread the monthly discomfort and inconvenience of my own period. I remember getting my first period at 13 and thinking to myself, “OMG, is this going to happen to me every month till the day I die?” It was a horrible feeling of helplessness.

But for Waris, it was not just a period that lasted 3 weeks instead of 3 days, but also the chronic pain involved as a result of the botch job done by the circumciser with a razor and needle.

What has been done? 

In December 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation.

In 2010, WHO published a “Global Strategy to Stop Healthcare Providers from Performing Female Genital Mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

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But the truth is, laws are poorly enforced in many cases, and these measures are not without opposition. From the perspective of colonial and post-colonial history (in particular, the introduction of Christianity by Western missionaries), some anthropologists raise questions about the ethical implications of meddling with deeply-entrenched cultural rituals.

In fact, that was the premise of the book The River Between, written in 1965. When I read it in 1985, I too questioned the ethics of imposing Western religious beliefs on indigenous populations.

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But last night, in my first brush with the Desert Flower (‘Waris’ means ‘Desert Flower’), I heard a Somali woman speak up for herself and for other African girls who have undergone female genital mutilation. She is one of the first to ever speak up against FGM at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City.

Now that was powerful.

It was powerful for me because Waris did not always believe it was a violation. It was her reality. And it was through a painful personal journey that led to her to the point of speaking up against it.

And for me, every time an African speaks up for Africans, or a Cambodian speaks up for Cambodians, I think we need to sit up and pay attention. Because hearing a cry for help from within makes all the difference.

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

The real Waris Dirie, a Somali supermodel and UN ambassador

I always believe change starts with awareness. And while I don’t know what a small group of people in Singapore can do, I do believe in the power of the Ripple Effect, and that one person’s awareness can start a chain reaction.

If you feel moved to find out more about Waris Dirie’s humanitarian work, do visit her website at desertflowerfoundation.org or the film’s website at desertflower-movie.com.

 

 

 

It’s hard to believe that the woman in traditional hijab sitting before me was younger than me. Apart from the fact that we’re both women born in the 70s, single mothers with two children and published authors, our lives were as different as night and day.

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When Fawzia Koofi was born, she was left in the sun to die.

Her mother was the second of seven wives, and she was the 19th daughter of her father. An unwanted daughter. In a culture that favoured males, her life was one episode of discrimination after another. In our hour-long conversation, she openly used that word – “discrimination” – although in her book, I don’t recall it written.

Yes, I read Fawzia’s book from cover to cover.

So just how different were our lives? In her childhood, she witnessed the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, then the Mujahideen who chased the Russians out but started a civil war that saw her father and brother brutally killed. She was 17 when the Taliban rolled into Kabul on pickup trucks…

There were many instances where she could have been killed, and Fawzia writes in her book The Favoured Daughter that she believes she was saved for a purpose.

It takes a special kind of woman to overcome the odds stacked up against her. Under the Taliban, she was not allowed to go to school, she had to wear a burqa, and be accompanied wherever she went by a male companion of blood relation.

The distinctive blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

The blue burqas of Afghan women under the Taliban

But this feisty girl risked her life – amidst disapproval from her family, especially her brothers – to go to school and study English. She would never finish medical school and become a doctor (as she had hoped), but her proficiency in English and her work with children landed her a job with UNICEF.

She was then the first and only Afghan woman working full-time with the United Nations in Kabul. And her work with the U.N. brought her into the poorest communities of Afghanistan and opened her eyes to the plight of its people – especially women and children.

This led to a political awakening.

In 2005, she stood for an “internal election” within her family to be the sole representative of the Koofi family (which has a political legacy, as her father and grandfather were politicians) in the provincial elections. Despite the odds against her, Fawzia was chosen over her brother, and went on to win the elections and a place in Afghanistan’s Parliament. Soon after, she was elected Deputy Speaker of Parliament, a prominent position for an Afghan woman in politics.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of meeting Fawzia Koofi because I was invited by the Singapore Committee for UN Women to moderate a 2-hour session with her at The Arts House. The session was intended to be held at The Blue Room, but had to be shifted last minute to the Chamber at Old Parliament House because of the swelling crowds.

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Where Singapore’s Members of Parliament used to meet to debate on issues of national importance

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When she arrived at The Arts House, the audience was in the midst of an exodus; so she held my elbow and said, “Let’s have a chat.”

We found ourselves a cosy corner and talked about nothing in particular. I thought she might have wanted to define the boundaries of our conversation, but when I asked her if there were things she preferred not to talk about, she said no. Nothing was off limits.

I found myself telling Fawzia that we do have several things in common. And when I got to the part where I said I was also a single mother of two, she looked at me gently and asked, “What happened?”

For a woman who had been rushed from TV to radio interviews all morning (and looked visibly tired), she showed me kindness and concern in her personal question. Of course, I had an unfair advantage: From her book, I knew her husband had died of Tuberculosis. He’d been arrested by the Taliban countless times and beaten, and the conditions in the prisons were so bad it weakened his health. He never did recover, even with medication.

“Would you remarry?” I asked Fawzia.

She smiled and shook her head. “No, it’s a little difficult now with my life in politics.”

Just two days earlier, Fawzia had launched her Presidential campaign. She heads a political coalition called the Movement for Change in Afghanistan and will be standing for elections in 2014. She is the first woman in Afghanistan to head a political party.

But Firsts aren’t new to Fawzia Koofi.

She was the first girl in her family to go to school… the first woman in the family to enter politics… the first woman to work in the United Nations in Afghanistan… the first woman to head a political party… and if she wins in 2014, the first female President of Afghanistan.

As with all trail blazers, her life is the target of countless death threats. It’s said that there are 30 known Taliban militants who are trying to kill her. It’s no wonder. She stands up and speaks out against child marriage and violence against women in a society that’s steeped in culture and tradition and religious conservatism.

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

Photo credit: Arthur Kade

How does she deal with the reality that she could be killed at any time?

Interestingly, her book starts with a letter to her two daughters. The first words: “Today I am going on political business to Faizabad and Darwaz. I hope I will come back soon and see you again, but I have to say that perhaps I will not...”

I asked her about these letters to her daughters, scattered throughout her autography (co-written with Nadene Ghouri, an award-winning journalist and broadcaster with BBC and Al Jazeera). She confirms they are farewell letters. The truth is that she never knows when she will be assassinated, and she has to prepare her daughters for that everyday.

I can’t even begin to imagine how tough that is.

I was reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi and the internal struggle she felt too when the military junta in Myanmar made her choose between staying in Yangon to fight for democracy or to join her husband and two sons (whom she had been separated from) in England.

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi with her family, in the early years

Aung San Suu Kyi knew then that if she left Myanmar, the junta would never let her return. And so she stayed on under house arrest. She missed out on most of her sons’ growing-up years, and she wasn’t there when her husband died of prostrate cancer.

But from my conversation with Fawzia, I understood that she was doing this for her daughters’ future. Her eyes would light up whenever she talked about them. “Shuhra wants to be the President of Afghanistan one day and Shaharzad wants to be a space engineer,” she reveals with a chuckle. “Shuhra tells me I have to be President, so that when she runs for President, she can say she was the daughter of the President!”

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But then, her fight for Afghanistan’s future is not just for her girls, but for millions of other girls in the country. Fawzia shares with pride that since the Taliban were removed from power, more girls are going to school. They still do risk their lives for an education (some walk for 2 hours to get to school), but of the 7 million children enrolled in Afghan schools today, 3 million are girls. That’s an impressive 40 percent.

IMG_6020“So I am guessing then that one of the reasons you wrote the book was to change perceptions – of Afghanistan and Afghan women,” I say to her. Even before I could finish my sentence, she was nodding vigorously.

“Afghanistan is in transition,” she asserts. “And I represent the progressives in society. Many of my young voters are on social media, and 85 percent of the country say they do not want the Taliban to come back to power. People in Afghanistan want change, but they need a strong leader who will lead them in this movement for change.”

She reiterated this point at UN Women’s S.N.O.W. gala event the night before, when she said that what Afghanistan needs now is investment in its potential – in business and its natural resources – and not for well-intentioned people to just keep throwing charity money at them.

When I asked her how we could support her in her mission, she said to spread the word – be it on social media or otherwise – about progress in Afghanistan and her commitment to further that progress through education, human rights and gender equality.

But how does she plan to do this? I found it hard to imagine how a woman without an army to support her could drive such progressive changes in a country where force and violence have traditionally been the language of change.

“Times change. In my mother’s time, women did not go to school. I had to fight to go to school. Now my daughters fight to get into the best schools!” She reasoned.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Photo credit: UN Photo/Shehzad Noorani

Although I wasn’t fully convinced, I could not deny the fact that I was sitting opposite this young woman in a red hijab, interviewing her in this grand Parliamentary chamber in Singapore because she was a prominent Afghan politician, human rights activist, and Presidential candidate. Would that have been possible a few years back under the Taliban?

(Photo: Leslie Lim)

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

“You initially wanted to a be a doctor. But the idea of being President of Afghanistan was mentioned several times in your book in relation to your mother,” I said towards the end of our conversation. “How much did your mother play a part in your decision to be President?”

Fawzia smiled in acknowledgement. In her eyes, I could see that she was grateful I had drawn her mother into our conversation at that point. “My mother always said I was special, that I was destined for something special. And being President of Afghanistan was her way of expressing that. That’s why it’s so important for us as parents to make our children feel special, to believe they can do and be anything.”

Without a doubt, it was an afternoon of insights. While Fawzia spoke in lofty ideals, I did not doubt that this women of Firsts could break down barriers once more and surprise the international community. After all, hasn’t it been the story of her life?

To see democracy, human rights and gender equality flourish in Afghanistan is what Fawzia Koofi lives for, and would willingly die for.

As I joined the rest in a standing ovation, all I could think of was how brave this young woman beside me was. Yes, we were similar only in surface details. Her destiny was one reserved only for someone special, someone saved for a purpose.

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Photo credit: Leslie Lim

Fawzia Koofi was born into the world an unwanted daughter. But her journey these past 38 years has led her to a space where she has indeed embraced her fate as the favoured daughter.

And it will be a big day in Afghanistan when she does eventually lead that movement for change.

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With Afghan presidential candidate Fawzia Koofi after our UN Women session

If there is one reason I can’t do Fear Factor, it’s because of the food segment. You’re talking to a girl who doesn’t eat sashimi (raw), blue cheese (smelly) and oysters or mussels (slimy). Yeah, yeah, I’m a cheap date.

But being a travel writer pushes you to try new things for the sake of the story.

That was how I was suckered into going for my first onsen (hot springs) experience in Hokkaido. Mind you, we were on a media FAM trip and those ladies were journalists I met often at press conferences. They were magazine editors like me, writers and newspaper reporters, and I had to continue seeing them at future press events.

The thought of sitting in a public bath naked… and with them naked around me… was just inconceivable.

And then Angie said, “But don’t you want to write about it?”

Damn. Yes. I. Did. And so my resolve crumbled and I hung my head and went along. For almost an hour, we sat around in a public bath – buck naked – with snow falling lightly all around us, chit-chatting like it was the most normal thing in the world.

I have to admit it was hard not to glimpse a boob here and there, or pubic hair when my fellow journos stepped out of the bath…. Traumatic.

But oh well. Such uncomfortable experiences become worth it at the end of the day when you have a funny travel story to share. And as they say, the first time is always the hardest.

When I covered a story on Chiang Mai for SilkAir‘s inflight magazine, SilkWinds back in 2006, I ate insects for the first time at the night market. But it was a “safe” insect, in my opinion, because it was some kind of maggot or caterpillar which didn’t have hairy legs or scary eyes…

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And when lightly salted, tasted a little like… French fries? Or rather, chickpea with a metallic after taste.

So when I was back in Chiang Mai last December, I decided to be braver and try a wider variety of insects. And so my dear friend Vera (an old classmate now based in Chiang Mai) did me a favour and bought some insects from the local market.

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Whoa, it was a huge bag of bugs! I thought we were all sharing this, but as it turned out, everyone bailed out on me (including the boys), and so I could pretty much take my pick.

The bag was drenched in oil and so I figured the locals must have just deep-fried the whole damn bunch of insects. I can’t do raw, but how bad can deep-fried stuff be? They can only be crunchy, no?

But oh, this one was foul. It ended up being the hardest bug for me to eat…

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It looked like a giant cockroach. Or was it a cricket? Grasshopper? It had many long hairy legs that I imagined I’d choke on, and a huge head with large bug eyes.

How do you even bite off its head? What was inside the head? Would it be gooey?

I nibbled off its legs first, one by one, because it seemed the easiest and safest to eat. Everyone was squealing around me, even the boys. Then I held its legless body and head in my hand for a moment and stared at it. I have to admit I actually did not want to put that in my mouth.

But oh well. I bit off its head – midway – just to have a look inside.

There were no squishy brains, nothing oozed out. Everything was charred. But man, did it taste foul. There was this smelly metallic taste, and the insect was chewy. There was only a slight crunch as I chewed, but mostly, it was just oily.

But that’s what I love about travel writing! Ordinarily, I would have flatly refused. But having to write about your personal experiences gives you a certain bravado. And that gained some brownie points with the boys too! *beams*

And wadya know? In the latest United Nations report (released yesterday), the UN urges people to eat insects to help fight world hunger. Apparently, over 2 billion people worldwide already supplement their diet with insects.

Bug salad anyone?

Bug salad anyone?

Apparently, there are about 1,900 edible insect species currently known to man (there could be more!), and they are generally high in protein, low in saturated fats, and pretty nutritious on the whole. Perfect if you’re on a diet.

And if you dare eat insects, well the good news is that the world is full of them – each human can pretty much have about 40 tonnes to himself! Who knows? Maybe we can totally do away with pest busters one day?

Well, at least I know one thing for sure: I will NEVER go hungry.