Barking and Dagenham schoolgirls raise voices to end FGM
PUBLISHED: 16:25 20 March 2015 | UPDATED: 16:25 20 March 2015
"We would be foolish to think Female Genital Mutilation [FGM] is not happening here. We're a very diverse borough that has people from practising communities living here."
These are the stark words of Natalie Smith, the education director of Dagenham’s Arc Theatre, which helps pupils lead peer discussions on FGM.
Its trailblazing female empowerment scheme, which aims to tackle the subject head-on to improve confidence in girls from Year 7 upwards, was among the borough’s FGM-tackling efforts featured in BBC Three documentary Stop Cutting Our Girls.
The Comic Relief funded programme, which aired earlier this month, showed Fresh Meat star Zawe Ashton visit Eastbury Comprehensive School in Barking to see Arc Theatre’s Raised Voices group lead a presentation.
The theatre group works with FGM activist Leyla Hussein, who is a herself a victim, to open up discussion through workshops and storytelling to engage teachers and pupils.
FGM is the partial or total removal of the exterior of female genitalia or any other injury to female genital organs for non-therapeutic reasons – and is illegal in the UK,
But Natalie found FGM affects 107,000 females in England and Wales every year, with 66,000 of victims under the age of 15.
She believes the taboo surrounding FGM helps it go unchallenged.
“It’s such a secretive issue because people don’t feel comfortable talking about it,” Natalie explained. “It’s our job to stand up and shout about it.”
Arc Theatre’s communications manager, Theresa Snooks, says the response to the documentary has been encouraging.
“Family, friends and colleagues from all sectors said how powerful and moving the programme was and how much they support our work,” she said. “We really feel like we are getting the message out.”
Admirers include Cllr Bill Turner, cabinet member for children’s services and social care.
“Arc Theatre and the young people they work with have done some outstanding awareness-raising,” he said. “We’ve been extremely impressed by Raised Voices and are very proud of the young residents using their talent to help end FGM.”
Arc Theatre has been nominated for Group of the Year at the Barking and Dagenham Female Empowerment Awards, which will be held at Barking and Dagenham College on Friday. It also won a Recognition Award at the House of Commons earlier this month.