It was a cold winter day in July two decades ago when Blacktown Hospital midwife Terry Leathers first heard about female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
She was part of a group of clinicians who were attending an in-service education session facilitated by the NSW Education Program on FGM/C.
“I’d never heard anything like this before. One of the nurse’s reaction about ‘how dare such a practice still exist’ continued to haunt me,” Terry said.
February 6 is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, a term that encompasses all procedures that involve cutting, altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons.
Understanding this issue has become more important in Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) over the past 20 years as more women from the more than 40 countries that continue to practice FGM/C have started to use maternity services across the district.
In October last year, Terry established the first FGM clinic at Blacktown Hospital after making every effort to get educated about the practice and understand how best to support women.
“Working alongside these women became my passion,” Terry said.
“I learned to accept them as they are, and separate my own intense feelings of injustice at this harmful practice from my respect for the patients’ culture and experience.
“It’s obviously a very sensitive topic that can bring up a whole range of different emotions and responses, so you need to be empathetic and patient in building rapport with women so they will listen to your medical advice.”
Terry’s goal at the clinic is to ensure women understand the detrimental effects of FGM/C on the physical and psychological health of women and girls, and that women and their partners are informed about the law in Australia.
The practice of FGM/C is illegal in every state and territory of Australia, which includes performing FGM/C on an Australian child while they are overseas. In NSW, someone who performs FGM/C or organises for it to take place can be sent to prison for up to 21 years.
Terry sees 4-5 women a month at the Blacktown Hospital clinic, a number she expects will grow with improved antenatal screening.
Early detection gives women the time to understand how pregnancy and childbirth will affect their body, and any necessary surgical procedure they may need to undergo for their own safety.
Terry’s ultimate goal is to completely eradicate this practice within Australia and respectfully support women who live with the consequences.
The NSW Education Program on FGM/C is a state-wide program funded by NSW Health since 1996 and administered by WSLHD.
The key aims of the program are twofold:
- Clinical response – To enhance the capacity of the NSW Health system to effectively and sensitively respond to the health and cultural needs of women and girls affected by the practice of FGM/C, and to ensure they receive treatment and care that is high quality, culturally safe and minimises adverse health effects and psychological harm.
- Community Education – To enhance the capacity of communities affected by or at risk of FGM/C practice to understand the negative impact and consequences in order to promote approaches that prevent and eliminate the practice. The program also works with communities affected by or at risk of the FGM/C to promote better health and address their specific health needs through bilingual, peer-led community education approaches that foster empowerment and strengthen health literacy, so they can confidently prevent, manage and improve their health.
For more information on the NSW Education program on FGM/C please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.