FORWARD – Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development.
FORWARD was established in the United Kingdom in 1983 as a result of the raising number of problems caused by female genital mutilation (FGM).
FORWARD works with individuals, communities and organizations to eliminate FGM practices and provide support to affected women. Since its inception, FORWARD has since expanded its campaign to include other issues like fistula, child and forced marriages.
In part one of my profile on FORWARD, I had the pleasure of interviewing author Gavin Weston, writer of the remarkable novel Harmattan and Ambassador to FORWARD UK. Thank you Gavin it is a pleasure to interview you again.
How did you get involved with FORWARD?
A few months after I signed to Myrmidon Books I began to feel that my book might be put to work in another way. I was both excited and apprehensive about Harmattan’s imminent release, just as any writer would be about their debut novel. (The book’s first publication was as an e-book in March 2012.) I wanted readers to engage with it as a good read, obviously, but I also had the sense that it might actually be useful – somehow – as a vehicle for raising awareness about child marriage.
I wasn’t sure how then, and, as a white European male in his forties, I had prepared myself for a lot of criticism for having the audacity to attempt to give a voice to a West African female child. I spent a lot of time searching the internet and reading information about various NGOs. Finally I found FORWARD and when I read their manifesto and learned about their enterprising work with child brides and child mothers, I took a deep breath and sent an e-mail to their director, (the wonderful Naana Otoo-Oyortey).
I was pleased but more than a little nervous when Naana wrote back to me and said that she would like to read Harmattan and that she could do so while she was visiting one of their projects in Tanzania. Myrmidon sent Naana a galley proof of the book and there then followed a rather nail-biting month when all I could do was wait.
Eventually I checked my e-mail one morning and there was a very warm message from Naana, saying that she found the book ‘amazing, engaging, sad and funny’ and that she would be recommending it to friends. Subsequently FORWARD endorsed the book, invited me to speak at their London conference on child marriage, invited me to serve as one of their ambassadors and then organized a great book launch event (coinciding with the first ever International Day of the Girl) in London for the hardback release a few months later. I have learned a great deal since then and working with FORWARD is an honor.
What is your role as ambassador?
It is early days, to be honest. We’re still plotting routes, as it were. As you are aware, I use Twitter to promote both the book and FORWARD’s work quite a lot. (I am a reluctant convert to Twitter, having been goaded into using it by my publishers!) It has been enormously useful in getting people involved and spreading the word about child marriage.
I have no qualms about the symbiotic relationship that I have with FORWARD. Of course I want people to read my book, but it would never have been written had I not totally committed to doing something to help bring about an end to the cruel practice of child marriage. (That’s something that FORWARD and I have in common.)
I try to promote both the book and the campaign in tandem. At book readings I always devote some time to talking about the very real problems that organizations such as FORWARD are attempting to combat, and I always make sure that I have a good supply of FORWARD literature.
Most people simply don’t know the extent of the problem. An estimated 25,000 child marriages occur every day! That’s mind-boggling, so much so that to many people it becomes abstract, unreal. That’s when my book kicks in, because it is just one individual’s story, fictionalized, yes, but most of the events in Harmattan are actually based on fact.
I’d like to write a piece on FORWARD’s work for a national newspaper perhaps. High profile platforms can help put real pressure on leaders to prioritize this important issue. For example, you only need to look at Stephanie Sinclair’s photographs of child brides (which appeared in National Geographic and then went viral) to see that.
I’m also really pleased that Harmattan has been published in Turkey and that FORWARD is building up new partnerships with organizations such as Flying Broom. Until a year ago I had no idea that child marriage was still such a problem in Eastern Europe. There are an estimated 180,000 child brides in Turkey alone!
What role do you think the public can play in ending child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM)?
Everybody can do something to help. Even if you tell one other person, that is a start. Social media is fantastically useful, of course. But you can also donate; time, money, skills etc. Education is key to breaking the cycle of child marriage, which in turn often leads to poverty.
We need to ensure that all children (girls and boys) receive a proper education, and we need to educate the world to ensure that changes happen. Put it like this, if you knew that your neighbor’s kids were being abused you’d do something about it, right? Well, these are our neighbors! They may not live right next door, but they are part of our global future and their lives are being squandered, often because governments, village councils, heads of families and individuals fear challenging ‘tradition’. Mahatma Gandhi put it best when he spoke about child marriage. He said, “I do not hold that everything ancient is good because it is ancient.” It is time to put an end to the practice of looking away.
What do you think need to happen to get these practices to be completely abandoned?
Sadly, realistically, I think that day may be quite a few years away. It is encouraging to hear respected figures such as Desmond Tutu state that the job of eradicating child marriage is as important to him as apartheid was, and other members of the organization The Elders have vowed to make it happen by 2030.
A lot of work needs to be done at village level, especially in rural and remote areas. Governments must find ways of regulating marriages efficiently. I feel that it is achievable, but it saddens me to think that this scourge can’t be stopped before then. When you consider that with each passing year there are another 10 million child marriages, 2030 seems very far down the road. That’s an awful lot of squandered lives.
Thank you Gavin!
Learn more about Harmattan and Gavin’s work on his website http://www.gavinwestonbooks.com/
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @WestonofTinTown
In part two of this profile, I’ll chat with the dynamic Naomi Reid, Events and Special Projects Coordinator at FORWARD UK. In the meantime, please visit Forward UK’s website and see how you can make a difference.