A High Schooler Fights to Educate Professionals About FGM/C

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and the start of the #16DaysOfActivism which will conclude on Human Rights Day, indicating that violence against women is the most prevalent breach of human rights worldwide. This campaign is used as an organizing strategy by individuals, institutions and organizations around the world to call for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls. We talked with Olivia Canter, 17 year old high schooler, who created www.fgmeducation.com with the focus on cultural education for professionals.

Olivia Canter

Tell us about yourself.

I am a high school senior at Byram Hills High School in Westchester, NY. I come from a close-knit family of two sets of twins, and my favorite pastime is hiking at Rockefeller State Park Preserve. In addition to my four-year FGM project, I am heavily involved in Science Research; I am currently conducting a study on telomeres — chromosomal caps associated with aging. I am also a serious athlete, with thirteen years of karate under my belt, ten years of soccer, and four years as a sprinter in track.

How and when did you learn about female genital mutilation/cutting?

In ninth grade, my English teacher gave my class the opportunity to present a speech about anything. I wanted to pick a meaningful and new topic something that I could learn about for the first time. So, I scoured the internet, skimming headlines and websites until I came across Target
5.3 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals: Eliminate female genital mutilation. I had never heard of this practice before, so I felt naturally inclined to read more about it. I researched the prevalence, procedure, cultural motives, and perspectives by reading articles and first-hand accounts. I presented a speech about FGM to my ninth-grade class. Little did I know, this would only be the beginning of my knowledge, mission, and impact.

Why is this issue important to you?

Since FGM cases evolve into criminal investigations, survivors will interact with police, attorneys and child protective service professionals. I noticed that there were medically oriented education projects focused on detection yet none focusing on cultural educations for non-medical professionals who may interact with FGM survivors. Thus, my target audience is any professional who may encounter a girl of woman living with FGM, such as law enforcement, social workers, medical professionals, lawyers, and child protective service professionals.

Investigative professionals have a special opportunity to help and support the well-being of FGM survivors. FGM leads to significant physical, mental and sexual health difficulties in girls and women. This important responsibility should be handled with care and consideration, in order for the patient or client to feel comfortable and secure. To attain a respectful and trusting context between the professional and the individual, cultural competency and sensitivity is of utmost importance.

In addition to creating a comfortable environment, investigative professionals have the unique opportunity to change perspectives about FGM, thereby helping girls and women living with FGM openly discuss their needs and feelings. Transforming attitudes encourages FGM survivors to speak openly about their experiences and is a crucial step towards preventing further FGM cases in communities. When development acknowledges culture, it creates change embedded in the values of the community and thus, tends to be more effective.

Lecture at Child Abuse Pediatrics at Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Rhode Island — July 2019

What was the inspiration for you to act by lecturing and creating your website? What is the purpose of the site?

My mother is a child abuse pediatrician. I have grown up watching her testify in court and listening to her cases, gaining an inside lens into the difficult realities of life. What I have absorbed most is the importance of understanding perspectives before passing judgement. Thus, as I first read about female genital mutilation, I was immediately struck by the intersection between culture and crime. How do investigative professionals conduct FGM cases and approach girls and women living with FGM without understanding the complex culture behind this practice? This question was the inkling that prompted my project.

Professionals investigating these cases must understand the deep-rooted culture behind FGM in order to most effectively encourage victims to seek help, improve legal outcomes, and elicit societal change. After independently researching this issue from a medical, legal, ethical and cultural lens, I independently developed a nationally recognized evidence-based program on cultural competency in FGM investigations. I have lectured to police, child protective services, lawyers, doctors, and social workers at organizations such as Hasbro Children’s Hospital, Pace University Law School, the Manhattan Child Advocacy Center, and the Office for Women. I developed a comprehensive pre- and post-presentation survey which revealed an increase in FGM understanding by 76% and cultural understanding by 31%.

Recognizing my impact, I built a web-based program to educate professionals across the globe, utilized thus far by over 350 professionals in 15 countries. Furthermore, prominent organizations such as the Northeast Regional Children’s Advocacy Center, the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and your U.S. End FGM/C Network have been receptive to the project with links/posting.

Lecture at Westchester County’s Child Advocacy Center — February 2018

What is your advice for other youth who want to engage in ending female genital mutilation/cutting?

My first piece of advice for other youth is to know the value of your own voice and ideas. Before my first lecture, I was definitely nervous about my age: How would I, a ninth grader, teach forensic professionals about FGM? As I gave my presentation on cultural competency in FGM investigations, the professionals were engrossed in my lecture, asking thoughtful and insightful questions at the closing. Now in my fourth year of this project, I’ve learned that I do have the ability to make an impact on professionals despite my age.

My second piece of advice is to speak up with knowledge. Talking about female genital mutilation may be considered “uncomfortable” or “awkward,” but this is the stigma that we need to break. Oftentimes, girls and women living with FGM do not seek help when they experience health complications linked to the FGM procedure because they may be ashamed or embarrassed. We must end the silence surrounding FGM, so girls and women living with FGM feel comfortable opening up about their personal experiences.

My third suggestion is to never stop learning. I am in my fourth year of my project, and I am still learning new terms, ideas, and undertakings regarding this practice. Just last week, I read about the impact of COVID-19 on female genital mutilation. My last advice on engaging in the elimination of FGM is to keep taking action. Every year, I set a new goal for my project, which is why it has grown and developed into lectures, survey analysis, websites, and work with organizations. Young people are a key to making change, and it is essential that the youth know their potential.

Zoom Lecture to Criminal Courts Class at Marist College (during COVID-19) — September 2020

How can adults support the efforts of young people like you?

I would not be where I am without the support of adults who decided to so kindly give me an opportunity over the past four years. Every professional who responded to my email, let me lecture at their institution, taught me about their field, or passed on my name is the reason I have been able to pursue my project. That is actually how U.S. End FGM/C Network learned about my project: a doctor learned about my website from a group distribution list, connected me to an attorney she’d heard a lecture from, and that attorney was gracious enough to connect me to your organization — three degrees of separation. Adults can help and encourage young people like me by making connections and opening doors, however large that door may be. Whether they can let me present to their organization, share my website with their colleagues, or amplify my mission, I am always grateful for any window of opportunity. If adults take a leap of faith and instill trust into the youth, then young persons will be able to make an even larger imprint on society.

What is next for Olivia Canter?

Regarding my FGM project, currently, my target audience is investigative professionals. In future years, I hope to expand my audience to the undergraduate and graduate level for students who plan to pursue professions in the forensic field. Furthermore, I plan to create educational lessons that can be incorporated into the curriculum at medical and law schools. This way, prospective professionals can understand the importance of cultural understanding in FGM investigations when pursuing careers in fields such as child abuse, law enforcement, medicine, law, and social work. As I am applying to colleges, I am learning about the different resources and opportunities on campuses and making decisions with this in mind.

One message that I would like to leave with readers is a famous quote from Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that my mom has impressed upon me since I was a little girl is “Do your best at every task no matter how unimportant it may seem at the time.” If you care about something, whatever that may be, it is worth taking a chance even if you may face rejection. Look at every opportunity as a time to learn, and most importantly, be receptive and reciprocal. It is equally important to help other people when networking and form strong relationships throughout the process.

To reach out to Olivia, fill out an informational page on her website or connect with her on LinkedIn.

We are a collaborative group committed to promoting the abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting in the United States and around the world.