Written by Sarah Edwards, from Oxford Against Cutting

THE PANDEMIC has resulted in many more women becoming vulnerable to domestic abuse and other harmful practices.

Oxford Against Cutting (OAC) is a rights-based charity that works to end female genital mutilation (FGM), honour-based abuse, early/forced marriage and female cosmetic genital surgery.

The charity’s mission is to end cultural practices that harm girls and women by providing education, supporting survivors, raising awareness of support services and empowering young people to champion initiatives against harmful practices in the Thames Valley region.

Kate Agha the charity’s CEO said: “Our charity adapted quickly and effectively to the Covid-19 outbreak, as it became clear that lockdown was exacerbating isolation, the risk of abuse and mental health concerns for women from communities affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) and ‘honour’-based abuse.”

The unique structure of OAC enabled the organisation to work quickly and develop new online support tools.

Kate added: “We were all working remotely long before lockdown as this has always been the way OAC is run. We have team members across the UK and our social media manager is now based in Kenya. We are very used to not all being together in one office space. From that perspective we didn’t have as much adjusting to manage when lockdown started, and could expediently deliver new training, learning and online support.”

Among the work that OAC delivered was a series of 50 online events. The Web Cafes provide support, befriending and learning in an informal, online space, and tackle a broad range of topics on harmful practices, for both communities and professionals.

Dot Pritchard, Project Manager, explains: “Our Web Cafes are a safe, informal online space for communities and professionals to meet up, share learning and provide mutual support on sensitive topics. Most sessions include an interview with a speaker, who is a specialist in the topic, followed by time for questions, discussion and connection. Our speakers have included retired DCI Caroline Goode, the police officer who led the investigation into the “honour” killing of Banaz Mahmod.”

The Web Cafes are facilitated by team members who represent communities affected by harmful practices.

The project was rolled out following Webinars for Women - a series of eight “closed” workshops for women from communities affected by FGM and forced marriage.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, OAC brought together a temporary working group to consider the additional barriers created by lockdown that prevented people affected by harmful practices from reaching specialist services.

Kate said: “We led strategic thinking, by setting up a temporary working group to consider the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on people at risk of FGM and forced marriage. We considered the use of codes, the barriers to reaching support and the messages and action needed to support people affected by harmful practices during lockdown. Our charity prepared working documents for discussions on barriers and case studies that were included in a Select Committee report.”

The group included local stakeholders, and national organisations and led to a number of initiatives to improve access to support, including a Thames Valley poster campaign.

OAC was subsequently invited to set up a new multi-agency group, to support professionals working with women from minoritised groups who are recovering from abuse during lockdown.

The new group is part of the Domestic Abuse Partnership hosted by Oxfordshire County Council. The first initiative of the group was to create Best Practice: Support Groups for Women from Black, Asian, and Ethnically Diverse (BAED) Communities in Oxfordshire.

To support the local education and voluntary sector, OAC also set up Inclusive Perspectives, a new initiative to ensure training materials, such as workshop plans and handouts, are suitable for the intended audience from an intersectional perspective.

Kate added: “Our diverse team of specialists reviews resources from a multi-lensed

perspective, to support the use of materials that are culturally sensitive, gender-appropriate, and user-friendly for all ages and abilities.”

Much of the workshops and training OAC delivers is within schools, and during lockdown the charity delivered online safeguarding training and webinars on FGM and forced marriage for school staff teams as well as community groups, charities, the Probation Service, the Crown Prosecution Service and companies. Over 3,500 teachers, students and other professionals have participated in OAC workshops across the Thames Valley during the last three years.

Kate said: “Our charity delivers lessons and workshops for schools and universities across the Thames Valley, always with a facilitator from an affected community who brings lived-experience to learning, as well as specialist knowledge. Evaluation of our training consistently demonstrates that confidence levels in dealing with all the issues surrounding FGM and forced marriage increase significantly following our workshops. In the summer of 2020, we published Evaluation Reports on our largest schools projects in the Thames Valley.”

Facilitator Hauwa Suleiman added: “It has been an incredible year of delivering training both online and face-to-face. It gives me great pride and a sense of accomplishment to look back and see all the lives that we have touched through awareness raising.

When restrictions were eased, OAC was delighted and ready to return to the classroom, having increased its team size and reach during the pandemic.

Kate added that the charity’s time online enabled the creation of a wealth of digital content such as Instagram Live interviews, podcasts and films, as well as work with partners further afield. “We are committed to ensuring that materials on abuse and sexual health issues are accessible to everyone.”

To reinforce this, OAC produced a series of short films funded by Oxfordshire Public Health, looking at taboo subjects connected with sexual health and relationships within the South Asian communities. The films have been translated into Urdu and Punjabi and included one exploring the issues of genetic conditions and cousin marriage.

The genetic conditions film features Sobia Afridi and her adopted daughter Sabrena from Marston in Oxford. Sobia is a training facilitator for Oxford Against Cutting and in the film, she talks candidly and openly about how Sabrena was born with a genetic condition because her birth parents were cousins.

Sobia said: “I became involved in the film because I wanted to raise awareness of the issue of cousin marriage because this is a subject that is never discussed but is linked to genetic disorders in children.”

Sabrena, who is 18 and studying for her A levels at Cherwell School added: “My illness is called thalassaemia and I have to go to the hospital often for blood transfusions and other treatments. It is part of my life and there is nothing I can do about it – I just have to get on with it, but I wish I didn’t have it.”

Work on the series of films began in January this year to specifically tackle taboo subjects and to make information accessible to South Asian families.

Sobia added: “There is no shame in illness, but cousin marriage is about choice and the idea behind the film is to encourage people to talk about conditions particularly if they are considering cousin marriage because it is more likely that children will be affected by them. It’s important that people know about their own health and any unusual genes that could cause problems, but it is simply not talked about enough within South Asian communities.”

The film has been nominated for a Smiley Award which celebrates films made by charities to raise awareness of the work they do.

Kate added: “We are very proud of the films we made and everyone who took part in them showed great courage in sharing their stories. We have had a great response to this project, and it would be a brilliant start to 2022 if we won.”

To view the film and vote go to https://bit.ly/VoteOAC

To find out more about OAC’s work go to www.oxfordagainstcutting.org