Adama Lee Bah, 22, in the Financial District of Manhattan on June 26, 2017. Bah, originally from Guinea, was 7 when she was forced to undergo FGM and she now works to help end the practice. (Benjamin Chasteen/The Epoch Times

I’m a survivor of female genital mutilation and I’m changing the world because of it

As a survivor of FGM, I deem it fit to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls.

Where I am from, a girl is recognized by the following: Who is her father? Who is her husband?  Where are her children? Society believes these are the only stages in a girl’s life. Men and women spend their whole lives teaching their girls how to eat, drink, walk and subject their girls to female genital mutilation (FGM) and early marriage in the name of religion and culture.

I am from The Gambia; the smallest country in mainland Africa. We have a population of about two million people, 60% of whom are young people under the age of 24. Almost half of the population lives in abject poverty. In my country, women bear the weight of these challenges and endure all the injustices society has to offer despite the fact that our government signed and ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is also a signatory to the Beijing Declaration which has the singular purpose of promoting gender equality and empowerment of women around the world.

As a survivor of FGM, I believe it’s my duty to create awareness on this harmful cultural practice affecting women and girls. I would not have done all my activism both local and international without my father’s firm belief in girls’ empowerment through education. With all my experience and both formal and informal educational background, I decided to represent and speak for the voiceless.

Where I come from

I am the sixth child of my parents’ seven children, all of whom started school as early as 4 years old. I was the only one who started school at age 7 because my father was more interested in teaching me the Holy Quran first before enrolling me to school.  He wanted me to understand the fundamental principles of Islam and differentiate Islamic values from cultural values. My father made sure I was going to school and at the same time attending Arabic school.

At the age of 11, I memorized the Holy Quran and started studying Islamic Sharia law. I attended a Catholic middle school during the day, and in the evening I went for my Islamic studies. Going to a Catholic school made me an outcast in my society and during my Grade 9 exams, my Islamic teacher would keep me in the mosque until late hours before releasing me in order to prevent me from studying for my exams.  The only difference between other girls in my country at the time and me was that I had an advocate who went against all the odds to make sure I had the same opportunities boys had to reach their fullest potential.

Although my father was not able to protect me when my aunty kidnapped me and took me to the circumciser, he taught me the Holy Quran and made sure I attended school.  My father was called “Western” and was denied access to Muslim gatherings because he never asked me to wear hijab.  He was a disabled man and he relied on his wheelchair, but he worked very hard to empower my mother who took over his business after his stroke. Unlike many of my friends’ fathers, he believed a woman could be more than a housewife.

Finding my voice

In May 2011, I was appointed as the head girl of Nusrat Senior Secondary School. One of my many responsibilities was to work with the staff to improve girls’ academic performance. In my research, I discovered most of the girls in my school were betrothed to be married. Some faced domestic violence, and others were victims of teenage pregnancy. As a result, they were often expelled while the perpetrators continued to go to school.

With the help of my father and the school administration, I organized an All Girls Conference for 700 girls from different schools in the greater Banjul (the capital city) area. This event served as a platform for girls from different backgrounds to come together and discuss issues hindering their performance in school with mentors, counseling experts, and peer health educators. At the end of the meeting, the participants came up with a pledge. My school helped me send it to the Vice President, the Office of Women’s Affairs and the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education and I was granted audience by the Minister of Basic Education and a representative from the Office of the Vice President for follow ups on the issues raised by the girls at the conference.

I also made a video about early marriage in the Gambia with the support of my father, Young People in the Media, and The Gambia Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices-Access Gambia (GAMCOTRA). Working with GAMCOTRA, I went to rural Gambia where I spoke with victims of early marriage and learned the challenges they face in their daily lives.

The All Girls Conference and my video helped me launch a gender sensitization curriculum for young people to address and prevent gender-based violence in all schools and communities together with the Ministry of Basic and Secondary Education.

Challenging my culture

After I graduated from high school in August 2013, I was elected President of Young People in the Media, an organization which aims to use media to create a greater understanding of the developmental issues facing children and young people and to give youth the opportunity to express their feelings and aspirations. I decided to start a radio talk show to address issues faced by young people, especially girls. On the show, I challenged religious leaders who were preaching that FGM is written in the Quran and that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. I studied the Quran for twelve years, and there is no chapter where Allah says a woman needs to be mutilated or a woman should not speak up.

In June 2013, I was invited to Abuja, Nigeria by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to speak on the role of young people in media and information literacy. After this meeting, I organized a capacity building training titled “Media Literacy: Incorporating Child Rights in a Changing Information Age.” The goal was to promote freedom of expression, access to the information youth need in order to be educated about technology, and to show them how they can use it to their advantage.

In December 2013, UNESCO organized the first Global Alliance on Media Information Literacy and Gender in Bangkok, Thailand. The main purpose of this event was to promote gender equality in the media. I was invited to participate as the UNESCO youth representative in the Global Alliance for Media and Information Literacy. I advocated for the inclusion of media and information literacy in school curricula because our President, who came to power through coup d’état in 1994, did not support freedom of the press.

With the support of UNESCO and the American Embassy in Banjul, my organization was able to train journalists and social media activists on how to engage people on online platforms, create online videos, and write blogs. The outcome of this was clear in our 2016 presidential election during which online media platforms were flooded with content.

How I will change the world

When my father died in 2014, his younger brother stepped in. He wanted to inherit my mother and he threatened to mutilate me a second time and marry me off, but my mom refused.

I fled to the United States and upon my arrival, I connected with Pooja Asnani, a lawyer at Sanctuary for Families. Pooja told me about Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, an option for young people who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned. Pooja represented me in Family Court and helped me obtain the orders I needed to apply for legal permanent resident status. In the summer of 2015, I received my green card thanks to Pooja and Sanctuary’s help.

These days I am pretty busy. As a Youth Representative on the UN Communications Coordination Committee’s Board of Directors, I represent the voices of the young and bring the attention of the Council to issues affecting young people. I stay connected to Sanctuary through their FGM Coalition. As head of the Coalition’s Youth Advocacy Committee I work with members to raise awareness about the dangers of FGM in New York’s African communities.

I am also working with Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Masood Katamee. He is a clinical professor at the New York School of Medicine and the founder of a gynecology and fertility research foundation, and together we are organizing a conference on June 22nd at the UN Headquarters with the theme Eradicating Harmful Cultural Practices Impacting Women’s and Girl’s Health and Well-being.

I am additionally working with UNESCO Paris to develop an app that will enable students in Africa to access library resources on their smartphones so that they don’t have to travel long distances in order to go to their school library. I am building this app based on my experience and the experiences of many young people in developing countries.

This fall, I plan to attend college. I want to study Women’s and Gender Studies because I will be able to learn not only about gender issues, but about sexuality, social class, ethnicity, race, and nationality. Studying the consequences of inequality in this way can help us shape a better world.

In the future, I plan to work with UN organizations like UN Women to encourage men to advocate for women’s equality.

I know I can influence change. By sharing my experiences as an African girl with the world, I believe I can create a difference in the lives of young people everywhere.

Funding for the Courtroom Advocates Project is Under Threat: Why it Matters

Since its founding in 1997, Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP) has been almost entirely funded by grants under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Today, funding for this critical program is in danger. Take a stand and join the effort to protect VAWA funding.

Brenna is a J.D. at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and is a member of Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council.

Ana’s Story

In July 2016, Ana arrived alone at the Bronx Family Courthouse hoping to obtain an Order of Protection against her husband. Ana’s husband had subjected her to severe physical and emotional violence during their marriage. On that day, she had a bruise on her upper arm from when her husband bit her the week before and a puncture wound from when he stabbed her with a pen. Those physical scars were in addition to the devastating trauma Ana experienced from months of repeated rapes and strangulations by her husband. She was upset, afraid, and like many victims of domestic violence, had no money to hire an attorney to help her.

Unsure of where to go or who to turn to, she eventually found a free consultant at the courthouse who introduced her to two attorneys in Sanctuary’s Courtroom Advocates Project (CAP). Ana’s fortunes were about to change.

Finding Sanctuary

Ana was assigned to a team of law student advocates who had been trained by CAP to help Ana file for and obtain a temporary Order of Protection in Family Court. Sanctuary’s CAP attorneys then took Ana’s case on for direct legal representation.

Over the course of two years, they not only helped her obtain a final Order of Protection against her husband, but also referred Ana to Sanctuary’s social workers from whom she received counseling. Today, Sanctuary continues to help Ana with her housing and immigration issues, all at no cost to her.

Since connecting with CAP and accessing Sanctuary’s holistic services, Ana has flourished. She has become more confident and is in charge of her own life, happiness, and safety. In Ana’s words,

“Had it not been for [Sanctuary], I don’t know what I would have done.”

Currently, Ana is on the path to fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming a nurse, and has completed a nursing education and training program. She is now able to leave her past behind and move forward.

The Courtroom Advocates Project(CAP)

CAP trains and supervises advocates, mostly law students, who provide in-court assistance to domestic violence victims seeking orders of protection in Family Court. Since 1997, CAP has trained nearly 12,000 advocates and has helped nearly 10,000 litigants in Family Court. Victims of domestic violence often come to court alone and intimidated. CAP advocates help them tell their stories more effectively, and provide needed reassurance.

CAP advocates can also direct victims to additional resources that may help them reach safety. Like Ana, many clients first connect with Sanctuary through CAP, and then receive help from Sanctuary with additional issues such as divorce, custody, spousal and child support, housing, public benefits, counseling, job training and immigration. For these clients, CAP serves as a crucial first stepping stone in their journey from an abusive relationship to freedom.

Not only does CAP provide vital assistance to victims of domestic violence, it also trains the pro bono attorneys of the future. CAP provides law students with an introduction to family law, a chance to meet with clients, and an opportunity to learn how to be litigators. Often, CAP may be a law student’s first experience working one-on-one with a client or appearing on the record in a courtroom, which can be invaluable lessons in their development as lawyers.  It also solidifies their passion for pro bono work, and sets them on a lifetime course of helping low-income clients.

How CAP Changed Me

I participated in CAP during the summer after my second year of law school. Paired with another law student, and under the supervision of a Sanctuary CAP staff attorney, I helped a high school student obtain an Order of Protection against her ex-boyfriend, who had attacked her in school several times.

I learned valuable skills in legal writing and courtroom advocacy and, more importantly, I was able to successfully advocate for a client. The experience and her gratitude for my help left a lasting impression. I returned to Sanctuary for an externship the following spring, and I have continued my involvement while working at a law firm by serving on Sanctuary’s Pro Bono Council and representing another Sanctuary client pro bono.

Protect the Violence Against Women Act

Today, funding for this critical program is in danger due to potential budget cuts recommended by the current federal administration. Since its founding in 1997, CAP has been almost entirely funded by grants under The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).

VAWA classifies domestic violence and sexual assault as federal crimes and funds programs that provide life-saving services for victims, including legal and criminal justice services, counseling, housing, prevention programs, and much more. The current administration is intent on cutting the budget for the Department of Justice (among many other agencies), which could very well include cutting or eliminating VAWA grants that are funded through the Department of Justice budget—something that President Trump has indicated a willingness to do. Such action would jeopardize the future of CAP.

Without CAP, thousands of clients like Ana would be less safe, and thousands of law students would be denied the invaluable experience of advocating for vulnerable clients. In Ana’s words, “[CAP] gave me a reason to stand up and fight.”

Now, it is time to stand up and fight for the program that has helped Ana and thousands of others take their first steps toward freedom.

What You Can Do

Tell your Representatives that you want them to make a strong public statement now that they will never approve a budget that reduces VAWA funding.

  • Schedule a meeting with your Representative to discuss the importance of VAWA, or see if there are any town halls you can attend and ask them to fight for VAWA funding now.
  • Call, write/e-mail, and tweet.

Ask your networks to advocate – spread the word to your contacts and ask them to advocate on behalf of VAWA.

Organize an informal “30 minutes of activism” breakfast or lunch.

  • Use these talking points to educate attendees on the issue, explain its importance to you, and ask them all to call, tweet, email, etc. together during the 30 minutes.

Post this article on social media and send it to your contacts.

Draft Op-eds. Use your connections to get op-eds published and get the issue out there!

Together we can make sure victims like Ana have access to the lifeline that she had. Take a stand today to preserve VAWA and its critical life-saving funding.

Survivors Organize First-Ever Leadership Conference

What does it mean to be a survivor? Why is it important to speak out?

What does it mean to be a survivor? Why is it important to speak out? How do we share our experiences while protecting our emotional and mental health? Can we create a safe space for survivors of all backgrounds to share and celebrate their stories?

These were some of the questions that guided our survivor leaders as they organized and led Sanctuary’s first-ever Survivor Leadership Conference in October.

dscf7148-editHosted by Gibney Dance, the Conference aimed to celebrate survivors’ journeys, strengthen resiliency and build survivor leadership within Sanctuary. Drawing on these questions and common goals, Conference organizers developed a program as empowering as it was healing.

dscf7143-editThe day’s events began at noon with a delicious buffet lunch catered by survivors and conference participants. As attendees filtered in and settled down, Sanctuary’s Executive Director Hon. Judy H. Kluger welcomed everyone and introduced Gwen Wright, Executive Director of the NY State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. As a survivor of domestic violence herself, Gwen’s deeply personal speech about her abuse, escape and evolution as a survivor leader set the tone for the afternoon.

dscf7196-editPanel discussions throughout the day covered a range of topics and were interspersed with self-care exercises and art-therapy projects. The first panel, moderated by a Sanctuary board member and survivor leader, highlighted the diversity of survivor experience through powerful testimony. Panelists spoke of their experiences as survivors of sex trafficking, forced marriage, breast ironing, and domestic violence in heterosexual, as well as same-sex relationships, and shared how they are each working to raise awareness through community, education, art and nonprofit advocacy.

dscf7314-editThe second panel delved further into the process many survivors go through in realizing and nurturing their inner leader. Between panel discussions, attendees wrote notes on a Sanctuary tapestry, snapped a few photos for the survivor-led selfie project and practiced meditation to ease the weight of the day’s discussions. Towards the end of the afternoon, staff members shared how survivors could get involved in survivor leadership opportunities at Sanctuary, including advocacy and outreach efforts, and the larger movement to end gender violence.

Joan Hutton Mills

The conference came to close with a special interpretive dance performance by a survivor entitled Points of Change and the reciting of a poem titled, “Change,” by Sanctuary survivor and poet, Joan Hutton-Mills.

 

Sanctuary is grateful for the generous support of Gwen Wright, Gibney Dance, and Project Playdate (which oversaw childcare during the conference). A special thanks is of course due to Sanctuary staff, volunteers, our board members, and the survivors who organized and led this incredible event.

For over 30 years, Sanctuary has served those escaping abuse, helping them transform from victim to survivor. Moving forward, we will build on this experience, working closely with our survivors, to create an organization that not only helps victims become survivors but helps survivors become leaders. By harnessing their energy and knowledge we, as a movement, will transform society’s response to gender violence.

Cahill Attorneys Help Domestic Violence Survivor Keep and Protect Her Kids

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of Cahill Gordon & Reindel attorneys for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “ZN.”

At this year’s Above & Beyond Pro Bono Achievement Awards and Benefit, Sanctuary for Families is honoring a team of attorneys at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP for their pro bono work on behalf of Sanctuary client “ZN,” a young, immigrant mother of four children. The Cahill team, consisting of partner Joel Kurtzberg, and associates Sara Ortiz, Chloe Sauer (currently of Barclays), and Ben A. Schatz (currently of the Center for Appellate Litigation) helped ZN obtain a finding of neglect against her husband, full custody of her children, and an Order of Protection, including all of her children, against her husband.

sara-ortiz

Pro Bono Council Co-Chair Ben A. Schatz talks with Sara Ortiz about her experience working with Sanctuary on the ZN matter.

Ben: Tell us briefly about the work you and your team did on behalf of ZN.

Sara: ZN is a young immigrant mother of four who had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband. She came to Sanctuary a few years ago after her husband lied to police to have her falsely arrested, only to find his plan backfiring, and resulting in a neglect case against him in Bronx Family Court.

Working with Dara Sheinfeld, Sanctuary’s Legal Director in the Bronx and Manhattan, we prepared ZN for a trial in the neglect matter in Bronx Family Court, and filed petitions for custody and an order of protection, to be heard simultaneously.

At an emotional hearing in the neglect matter, ZN and her oldest son testified about the extensive physical and emotional abuse her husband inflicted on the family. In July 2015, the court made a finding of neglect against ZN’s husband, and granted ZN full custody of her children and a full five-year order of protection for herself and her children. We also then assisted ZN in obtaining a favorable child support order against her husband. We’re continuing to advocate on ZN’s behalf in other pending legal matters.

Ben: Has working with Sanctuary on ZN’s case helped you grow as a lawyer?

Sara: Absolutely. My work at Cahill primarily focuses on long-term, large-scale commercial litigation matters and investigations.  Working with Sanctuary on ZN’s case as a junior associate has given me a great chance to take the lead on a completely different and incredibly important case.

Also, I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with, and learn from, Dara.  I could not ask for a better legal mentor.  Dara is a brilliant advocate, and made herself available day and night to answer any questions that came up during the case. Dara clearly loves her job, and working with her and with Sanctuary undoubtedly has made me a better advocate.  

Ben: Sanctuary takes a holistic approach to helping its clients. How did you and Sanctuary help ZN in ways outside the courtroom?

Sara: Sanctuary lawyers are always looking to support their clients in ways that extend beyond the clients’ immediate legal needs. Inspired by this approach, we referred ZN to our holiday Adopt-a-Family program, helped ZN obtain public assistance benefits, got her children signed up for free summer camp, and made sure she left each of our meetings with anything she needed to care for herself and her four children, whether it be food, clothing, or a MetroCard.

I also personally helped ZN become more comfortable taking public transportation by exchanging text messages with photographs of our respective locations to make finding each other near the subway easier.  ZN even gained the confidence to take the train alone from the Bronx to Manhattan.

Ben: How has Cahill supported your pro bono work with Sanctuary?

Sara: Cahill has been unwavering in its support of my work with Sanctuary. The Firm has a deep and longstanding relationship with Sanctuary, spearheaded by Joel Kurtzberg when he was an associate (that was nearly two decades ago—Joel is now a partner).

In addition to its pro bono efforts, the Firm sponsors holiday drives, collecting hundreds of gift cards for Sanctuary clients, and has hosted resume review and interviewing skills workshops for survivors of domestic violence enrolled in Sanctuary’s Economic Empowerment Program.  It’s a privilege to work at a Firm that enables me to pursue pro bono work I feel passionate about.

Join us at our Above & Beyond celebration on October 19, 2016 at the Highline Ballroom as we honor Cahill Gordon & Reindel’s outstanding pro bono work.  Learn more about the event here.  If you can’t join us, but would like to support Sanctuary for Family’s work, please consider making an Above & Beyond donation here.