Bilingual educators support communities to stop female genital mutilation in Australia

WSLHD Multicultural Health community education officer Ngatho Mugo

Women who have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting are working side-by-side with Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) to battle the illegal practice.

February 6 marks International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM/C) – and Multicultural Health team members are eager to spread the word about the NSW educational program on FGM/C.

The program has provided health education and support for communities at risk since 1996 using help of bilingual community educators.

Recruited by the District because they’re well-respected in their communities, the educators have first-hand experience with this harmful practice. Some have even undergone FGM/C in their home countries. 

One of the community educators (who wished to remain anonymous) has been working with WSLHD since 1999. Having undergone the circumcision herself, she said she didn’t know much about the stigma and risks associated with it until she was trained as an educator.

She couldn’t fight back the tears when she learned the truth. 

“I didn’t know the implications of FGM/C until I attended the training. At some point, I could not take it and I had to excuse myself from the class,” she said.

“I cried later at home and decided to fight for women and their health. I simply could not believe what I had just learned.

“In my culture it’s customary. It is a fun day for the community even – every girl in my family had to do it.”

Photo courtesy of Getty images.

Inspired by the key messages in the program, she started delivering educational programs to women in affected communities. She said the impact of these sessions was immediate, but women still received resistance from family members or the community.

“When I talk to women I say that I won’t stop them, but I would tell them about what might happen after the procedure. We encourage them to start expressing their opinions about it and teach where they can seek help,” she said.

“The program consists of 11 classes. We cover all aspects of women’s health before talking about FGM/C. In fact, only three classes are dedicated to it.

“We also talk about general health, nutrition and Australian legislation around women and child protection and FGM/C.”

FGM/C is a complex reproductive health issue, with multiple short and long-term consequences including obstetric, gynaecological, sexual and psychological. 

It involves altering or injuring a female’s genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is internationally recognised as a violation of human rights, and the health and integrity of girls and women.

The mutilation/cutting is mostly carried out on young girls from infancy through to the age of 15. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017 report) estimated 53,000 girls and women born elsewhere but living in Australia had undergone FGM/C during their lifetime.

FGM/C is part of the cultural tradition for many communities across the globe and is not seen as a harmful practice. Sometimes families take girls to their home countries to perform it.

The Multicultural Health team aims to “reach the minds and hearts” of communities by teaching about physical and psychological trauma stemming from FGM/C.

Community education officer Ngatho Mugo joined the team six months ago to support initiatives to stop the practice and conduct formative research to gain a better understanding of health needs and perceptions in affected communities. 

WSLHD Multicultural Health community education officer Ngatho Mugo

Ngatho said there is still room to grow, especially with new migrants unfamiliar with Australian healthcare and legislation systems. 

“Health education, healthcare services or the law prohibiting FGM/C do not exist in their home countries, and migrants and refugees aren’t aware of it when they arrive in Australia,” Ngatho said.

“We educate them about doing life in Australia from a health perspective so that they can have a peaceful life and access all services available for them.”

FGM/C is traditionally practised in 30 countries; mostly in Africa, the Middle East and some parts of Asia. However, due to widespread global migration, there has been an increasing number of women with FGM/C residing in higher-income countries. 

For more information about the NSW Education program on FGM/C please contact