End Female Genital Cutting Singapore (EFS) is a collective of determined people, some from the Muslim community in Singapore. The group came together in late 2020 to launch a pilot survey on Female Genital Cutting (FGC) and then a social media campaign around the otherwise taboo subject in Singapore.
Their actions are opening a dialogue among leaders, community members and allies which they hope will bring about the end of the practice of FGC in Singapore.
To learn more we talked with Saza Faradilla. Although she stresses that each campaign follower is a member of the movement, Saza has been one of the voices of End FGC since its beginning. Saza is a youth developer, community builder and Senior Executive at a higher education institute in Singapore. She is passionate about “making a difference by leading with care and competence” and has founded several social initiatives. She also has put considerable energy into researching and writing her thesis on the largely misunderstood subject of Female Genital Cutting. As a founding member of ESF, her activism today is rooted in both research and personal experience.
Through her research, Saza found that parents often are unaware of the harmful impacts of FGC on their daughters. The partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons have many harms associated with it. It has lifelong consequences on the sexual and reproductive health of women and people assigned female at birth and at times it can cause death. Saza found that when parents are given the opportunity to make an informed decision about the procedure – also known by the Malay word “sunat perempuan” – they usually decide against it.
“Singapore is a highly educated place” she explains, “so we do believe in the maturity of the Muslim population to stop doing this practise just because it’s not good for the child.”
Saza has faith in a grassroots approach being the long-term approach to ending FGC. She shares the collective’s stance that community re-education is more effective than a government ban or criminalization.
“We don’t believe in banning FGC in Singapore” she stresses. “The Muslim community in Singapore is a already minority community. Criminalizing the practice risks further marginalizing an already marginalized group. Furthermore, criminalization and banning FGC have been ineffective in many places. For example, in the US, the UK, Australia, criminalization only drove these practices underground. Many migrant communities still practiced FGC, but in a more hidden way, which makes it even more difficult to track and prevent.”
But Saza adds, “I have to say that (the view of) End FGC is not homogenous. We have members who wish to criminalize the practice. But generally, as a collective, we have agreed our stance is not to criminalize.”
“We believe in community re-education, and legislative change.”
From its beginnings, EFS has sought to “engage (with) relevant religious leaders and healthcare leaders” in an open dialogue about health standards and guidelines for FGC.
Their approach includes urging Singapore’s Ministry Of Health (MOH) to change how they approach “female circumcision”.
“Some of our recommendations (to MOH) are to treat FGC as you would treat any other medical procedure.”
In their pilot study of 360 Muslim women in Singapore, EFS found that 75% of the respondents reported being cut and at least 75% of these women were under the age of 1 when it happened (18% reported not knowing). Additionally, many respondents said they didn’t know what had been cut or how it was done. Although it is common practice for a general practitioner from a private clinic to carry out the procedure, the practice remains vastly unreported and unregulated.
“Any other medical procedure requires informed and written consent. If the baby cannot give informed consent, the parents or the guardians have to provide informed consent, which must be signed.”
Similar to any procedure with a significant impact on a person’s long-term well-being, it is essential for parents to be able to make an informed decision without pressure or judgement.
“Likewise, we advocate for a mandatory counselling period. For example, to get an abortion in Singapore, you have to get counselled. And then there is a 48 hour ‘cooling down’ period.”
We think that should happen as well for FGC. When the parents bring their child to the doctor, the doctor can inform the mother that sunat is not medically or religiously necessary and pass them a pamphlet to learn more. They can discuss the harms and many risks associated with it. If the parent still wants to go ahead with it, there is a 48 hour cooling down period. We think that all these regulations and standardizations of the practice will inform people” Saza explains.
Their approach is producing results. Last year, for the first time, MOH acknowledged that FGC does happen in private general practitioner clinics. “I think that is a win because the fact that they are acknowledging that it is happening is a good thing,” Saza shares. “It is a first step towards opening up the conversation around regulating the practice.”
Graphic art portraits of the members of the ESF – courtesy of EFS (Instagram)
Pushing leaders to take a stance
Although FGC in Singapore is carried out within the Malay Muslim community, the practice is actually a pre-islamic cultural practice and is not required within Islam’s religious scripture or teachings.
EFS stresses that “Culture is dynamic and changes according to time and place. If a cultural practice is found to have many potential harms and no proven benefits, it should not continue.”
As a result, “We have been pushing religious officials to come out publicly with a stance against the practice. We know that their insider stance is that there is a diversity of religious opinions on this practice, but it is not mandatory. Our stances are aligned, but (the question) is how (do) we push them to go public with it ?”
Saza confides “We have a lot of parents who write to us that they are so glad for this movement. They don’t want to cut their daughters – they seek help on how to not do it without upsetting their relatives. They have learned from the publications that this is not relevant in Islam and is not medically relevant. Our role is to help parents navigate the space with their families and protect the wellbeing of their child.”
Raising awareness and supporting survivors
Although most of the group’s communication goes through their Instagram page – sharing research, resources and testimonies to raise awareness – they have also produced several podcast interviews, talking about the origins of FGC within the Malay Muslim community and the myths behind the practice.
“The way that sunat perempuan is usually done today – quickly and discreetly, with little or no public celebration – strongly suggests that it is done to reassure and validate the baby’s parents and grandparents of their cultural or Muslim identity, and neither for the girl herself nor society at large.”
And they organize panel discussions that include parents that have chosen not to circumcise their daughters to promote dialogue from an informed point of view. The collective also remains very connected to their growing community and encourages questions from parents and survivors.
EFS has expanded their network through their collaborations with other organizations internationally. Their most recent collaboration is with the Asian Network Against FGM, a newly formed collective that connects activists fighting against FGC all around the Asian continent.
“I think this is amazing and really powerful. The solidarity of all of these groups working throughout the Asia region will be really helpful for our own advocacy in Singapore.”
Follow the EFS campaign on Instagram to stay up to date with their activities and actions.
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