Words by Abi Scaife
A group of women raising awareness about FGM/C (female genital mutilation/cutting), The Vavengers really are like superheroes. Initially, they just wanted to spread the word about FGM/C and gender-based violence. But soon it grew, and grew.
“I came to this country a while ago, and I’ve survived gender-based violence,” says Vavengers CEO Sema Gornall. “My mum and my grandmother were modern slaves. They were bought and sold in exchange for land. That’s the kind of life that we were expected to live as girl children, where I’m from in Türkiye.”
Many of the other Vavengers have experienced gender-based violence, including FGM/C, and they are using their stories to education, and motivate and inform. Most of all, they want to prevent other women, girls and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people from experiencing the trauma they did.
“You can always help more people,” says Sema, firmly. “I’m going to change my story. But I will also change it for others around me and maybe set an example for the girl children that I don’t know of – maybe they’ll see me on social media, they’ll see me speaking somewhere. They’ll see me doing my work. And they can also try really, really hard to make that change for themselves if help is not coming for them.”
It’s a common misconception, held by many in more privileged positions, or those who live in the Global North, that FGM/C only occurs in third world countries. To many, it is a distant problem – something terrible, sure, but not one that affects them directly. It predominantly affects those who come from an underprivileged background. But the truth is, FGM/C occurs everywhere.
“The society we live in … the people who grow up with no privileges kind of get written off. I wanted to remind everyone that no matter what background you come from, you can own your power,” says Sema. “I would rather work hard and try to achieve a free, happy and educated life that I wanted to live – or die trying.”
The Vavengers have multiple avenues that they are using to end the stigma faced by survivors of FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Not only do they perform outreach and education, they are campaigning to help end FGM/C in the UK – and the world.
Their pop-up hubs are the first – and the only – pop-up holistic support and wellness stations for those who have experienced FGM/C, or gender-based violence. The hubs are run by community support staff who have either survived FGM/C or gender-based violence themselves, or are experienced in the field.
The hubs distribute information, support, and provide community for victims of an incredibly isolating experience. They provide a safe space for survivors to bond and talk, where they will not be judged and they can open up about their experience.
The One Question campaign encourages healthcare professionals to ask if someone has experienced FGM/C – so that survivors can get the help and support that they need. Many cases of FGM are only discovered when survivors become pregnant and seek healthcare – that means not only do we not know how many people have experienced it, but also that they aren’t receiving the help they need.
“Nobody knows how widespread FGM is, either in the UK or across the world. The estimated numbers that UN says is over 200 million … we believe that number to be wrong. It’s much more than that,” says Sema. “It could happen to anybody at any point. Sometimes it happens to teenagers or people in their 20s, or sometimes way later into their lives. So the One Question campaign says we should ask everyone, every woman in this country, whether they’ve been subjected to FGM.”
The whole point of The Vavengers is to encourage everyone – of all walks of life – to get behind the fight to end FGM/C – whether they have personal experience with it or not.
“We like to bring everybody along to our journey. We define ourselves as a female, migrant and survivor lead organisation. A lot of people struggle with diversity these days – that’s not a problem for The Vavengers,” says Sema. “I think that’s what makes us really special because everybody’s voice is heard – everybody has a seat at the table. Even if the table is full, we’ll just extend it and welcome the other person make part of us.”
At Smiley Movement, we like to elevate the work of charities across the world. Here are three charities whose causes align with the themes in this article.
The Vavengers. A charity offering support and tackling stigma for survivors of FGM and other gender-based violence. Discover their work.
The Fawcett Society. This is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights. Support them here.
Beyond Equality. This charity is disrupting harmful norms and creating possibilities for positive change, working with men and boys towards gender equality. Find out more here.