New Step for African Communities (NESTAC), based in Rochdale, is an organisation that has addressed the needs of African communities living in Greater Manchester since 2003.

One attendee whose life has changed significantly thanks to NESTAC is “Maria”. Maria is a 23-year-old British citizen of African origin who lives in Manchester, where she has spent most of her life after moving from Somalia with her family when she was nine. Maria has volunteered at NESTAC as part of the SOS (Support Our Sisters) project, for the last two years.

Greater Manchester is one of the five hotspots for female genital mutilation in the UK. This is Maria’s story.

“This project has impacted my life so much in so many different ways over these last two years. The SOS Project has developed a platform for young girls and women who have suffered from female genital mutilation providing a transcultural therapeutic service to women who have undergone FGM and to those who might be at risk. It also engages them in a variety of health and wellbeing activities and empowers them to become Community Ambassadors working to end FGM in Greater Manchester.

“Being part of this project for me is like giving me the tools I need to speak out against the practice of FGM, having myself undergone it when I was only five-years-old. It was not a good experience and when I think of it, I still remember that day, the pain I went through and how traumatised I was for years, not able to share my emotions or to talk about it, being such a taboo subject in my culture.

“FGM has affected me physically and emotionally and in my community no one talks openly about problems that might occur as a result of the practice, seeing only the positives of it. When I found out about the SOS project and realised I could get support and a space to ventilate my emotions related to FGM, I contacted the project first as a client and went through couple of cultural counselling sessions, where I was listened to and empowered to overcome my trauma and to turn it to positive actions.

“Six months later I joined volunteers and registered onto the counselling peer mentor training programme the project was delivering for survivors. I have now become a FGM Community Ambassador and Peer Mentor Counsellor, giving support to other FGM survivors and empowering those who might be at risk.

“My first challenge as part of this role was to take the courage to talk to my parents. I was so stressed to discuss FGM at home, I found it so difficult to confront my parents that I could not sleep properly for days, but I knew I had to do it to protect my siblings and to raise awareness of the potential dangers related to FGM.  My parents’ reaction at first did not surprise me. I received lots of support from staff and volunteers from SOS, asking me not to give up speaking to my parents and family, and to invite them to awareness events and activities the project organise. It took few months for my mum to finally come to one of the events, but I knew it was mainly out of curiosity to find out why I became a campaigner and who the people I was working with were.

“At the end of the awareness event, my mother talked to me in tears and said that she learnt more in half a day about the danger of FGM than what she had always been told. I saved my sisters from going through FGM and I felt so proud and so capable of doing more. My fear disappeared as my mother freed me from this social pressure I was constantly living under.

“This is such a strong cultural belief that it takes specific approaches to change mentalities, and the SOS health and wellbeing activities are actually engaging women and young girls from FGM practicing communities to help empower and educate them so that they become future Community Ambassadors as well.”