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Girl Leadership: From a little whisper to a deafening roar

Posted by: Emma on 30 Mar 2017
in Blog

Lisa Zimmermann co-founded Integrate Bristol in 2008, due to her frustration at the lack of effective policy and action around female genital mutilation (FGM) and gender-based violence. Starting with four terrified girls writing anonymous poetry, she has built up a group of over 100 outspoken, articulate and politicised young people who have been taking the country by storm. In addition to numerous creative projects, Lisa and the young people she works with have made a number of educational media based resources for primary and secondary schools and they deliver peer education and FGM awareness sessions in schools, colleges, universities and many other settings up and down the country.

Ten years ago, when I was working as a teacher in a secondary school, I was about to take a group of girls on a trip to reward them for working really hard and improving their grades.  The usual school trip involved bowling or an amusement park, but I wanted to give the girls a new experience - horse-riding.

Then came the shock. Having submitted the forms and the risk assessment I was taken aside and told that 11 of the 12 girls had previously disclosed that they’d had female genital mutilation (FGM). The school Safeguarding Lead wasn’t sure if this would present a problem in terms of the planned activity.  I was speechless - I knew what FGM was, but had assumed that British girls would be protected. 

This was in 2007, a time when FGM was strictly taboo. Girls didn’t talk to their mothers about it, and very few teachers were aware of the practice, which, when you consider how many girls in this country are at risk, is pretty shocking. Awareness of the practice was minimal or non-existent, as was training, and the general view was that it would be insensitive and racist to discuss the subject openly, allowing the abuse to continue, as silence is passive complicity. The trouble was, I had no idea what to do or how to go about addressing the situation I was faced with, so I created a safe space and asked the girls affected what they would like to do.  And Integrate was born.

In the first year, we started having conversations about gender-based violence, including FGM, with a small group of girls after school.  Gradually, we formed a semi-secret group where FGM could be discussed,  mostly in whispers and always after school when everyone had left. Within a few weeks, four of the girls decided they wanted to do something, but they were very nervous and anonymity was important.  They wrote poems after school and we put them into little booklets.  It felt like a small victory.

Year 2 - there were now 12 girls and they decided they wanted to speak to a larger audience - but without faces or names for fear of a backlash - so radio was the obvious choice of medium.  They wanted answers to all their questions and they wanted to speak to experts. The drama-doc ‘Why?’ was the girls’ first attempt at challenging FGM openly, and although they were all between 13 and 15 years old, their questions were both poignant and insightful, and for me, eye opening.

We faced challenges: some other girls were horrified by what we were doing and word got out to the wider community. A group of ‘community elders’, almost all men, came to the school to complain but in the end, with support from the girls’ mothers and the police, we won.  The final programme was featured on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour which, at the time, seemed like a huge success. If confidence were something to be measured, the girls would have been 3 inches taller. 

In our third year, encouraged by the success of ‘Why?’, our group grew to 27 and they wanted to go a step further. We secured funding to make a film and the girls interviewed media professionals and chose who they wanted to be their mentors.  They organised themselves into teams and chose the roles they wanted in the production. Some wanted to act, others to direct, others to record the sound. Over seven months they worked after school, at weekends and in the holidays, and just as we were preparing for the premiere ‘Silent Scream’ at The Watershed Cinema, the elders swooped in again. 

The girls now refer to that period as ‘The Battle of Silent Scream’.  It was a period of tears, of anger and of frustration as accusation after accusation was thrown at the group in an attempt to silence their voices and restrict their freedom. The girls’ ultimate victory was a key turning point that empowered them to go from strength to strength and to take the topic of FGM to a national and political level. The premiere was a wonderful event; the Chief Constable presented each and every one of them with a Special Commendation, celebrity Alesha Dixon came and the theatre was packed to bursting.

When we got to our fourth year we had reached a total of 85 members and a few boys started to join the project. This was very important for the girls as they recognised that achieving equality has to involve both genders. FGM was a challenging enough topic for girls, but in 2011, when we started planning and preparing for our first ever conference, it was even more controversial for boys to be speaking out. 

For the first time, girl leadership seemed impossible. But we were understaffed and we needed several classrooms to operate.  Determined to include everyone, some of the older girls began taking charge, leading groups and mentoring the new members.  Girl leadership had moved to a new level beyond the project work, and now they had begun to lead the organisation!

‘The year of 85’, as we now refer to it, broke so many barriers, one of which was writing a song about FGM.  To a middle-class white woman like me, singing about abuse seemed wrong on so many levels - but the girls were adamant and it was a huge success. They have since made five brilliant music videos and the last one, #MyClitoris, reached well over a million hits on a number of platforms in just over two months!

I remember one moment when we were inviting politicians and international speakers to our first conference - time was running out and although five of the girls were busy emailing invitations, Muna, one of the original four, took my phone, googled the telephone number and called the House of Lords to invite Baroness Verma - who accepted!

The conference was at Bristol University in July 2012 and there were 300 delegates including policy makers, lawyers, police, teachers and health professionals. A boy of 16 opened the three stranded conference with an incredible speech that is still quoted today and the girls led the activities in three lecture halls.  The BBC Casualty crew came and by the end of the day, they were persuaded to produce an episode of the soap that would focus on FGM.  Two weeks after the conference, 12 of our young people went on BBC Newsnight and Muna famously told Prime Minister David Cameron to “grow a pair” and do something about FGM!

Years 5 to 9: Since 2012, the young people have improved in confidence and have really raised their game! They have helped move FGM to the front of the political agenda and have accumulated a formidable list of achievements. The impact of their work has been far-reaching, with former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, asking to meet with two girls from Integrate. In raising awareness on FGM and violence against women and girls (VAWG), the girls have helped both the public and policy makers recognise that girls deserve to be heard at the highest levels.  They have advised more than 12 Ministers including the former and current Prime Ministers, and have given evidence to the Home Office Select Committee.  They have also won awards every year, including Woman of The Year 2015, the Living Islam Award and the International Girl Award. In 2016, one of the Integrate's girls was awarded an honorary doctorate of Laws at Bristol University at the age of 19.

Through their leadership,  the girls have become role models amongst their communities and are looked up to by their peers and elders alike.  They have been invited to speak in Brussels, Amsterdam, Oslo and Washington DC. The girls’ new responsibilities and position of respect have served to dramatically improve their educational attainment and aspirations.  To date, all those who stayed with the charity through to A levels have secured a university place and two are now studying for their master's degrees. Girl leadership leads to equality and that can only benefit all of us.