Student Story

Cate Cox '23 on Addressing Trauma and Empowering Women

What inspired you to pursue your degree?

I am majoring in international relations with a minor in economics and Arabic. I wanted to pursue international relations and economics because I felt that these subjects would help expand my understanding of how global systems of oppression operate and how people worldwide are fighting to make the world a more equitable and fair place for everyone.

Tell us about your internship with Sahiyo.

I was officially brought on to the Sahiyo team in late August as a program intern. However, I had my eye on Sahiyo for a while. I knew they were doing amazing work both in Massachusetts and worldwide, supporting survivors’ healing and working towards prevention efforts to end female genital cutting (FGC, occasionally referred to as female genital mutilation). Just a few months before I arrived, Sahiyo helped pass a law criminalizing FGC in Massachusetts.

As a program intern, I organize and plan Sahiyo webinars — this means I help coordinate speakers, create supporting materials, and anything else that comes up. I love working in this capacity because it gives me such an in-depth understanding of the actual work Sahiyo is doing to create change. Sahiyo webinars range from educational events to intimate community chats and everything in between. These webinars help to continue the crucial educational and healing work necessary to work towards prevention efforts to end FGC and support survivors despite not being able to meet in person due to COVID-19.

Tell us a bit about the most recent webinar.

On October 22, Sahiyo partnered with three award-winning and multi-talented speakers Farzana Doctor, Sarian Karim-Kamara, and Joanna Vergoth, to host “Moving Towards Sexual Pleasure and Emotional Healing After Female Genital Cutting.” During this webinar, we had the opportunity to hear from these speakers about the mental and emotional consequences of FGC, how FGC can impact sexuality, and how survivors everywhere are working to heal.

Event poster for Sahiyo's January 19th event, "Art, Activism & Healing"

Passionate, honest, and bold, this webinar explored some of the most challenging and taboo subjects surrounding FGC and allowed survivors and non-survivors alike space to better understand the process of healing after FGC.

For those who want to learn more, coming up on January 19, 10 am EST, Sahiyo will be hosting the webinar, “Art, Activism, and Healing: In Conversation Around FGC.” During this event, you will have the opportunity to hear from four expert panelists, Owanto, Andrea Carr, Sunera Sadicali, and Naomi Wachs, as they discuss art and its role in supporting survivors’ healing and working towards prevention efforts to end FGC.

If you are interested in this topic, register for the event. Feel free to grab a beverage or a snack beforehand (or maybe even a paintbrush!) for what is sure to be an empowering and inspirational conversation. This event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

What do you find most rewarding about this work?

In the United States, FGC is highly ‘othered.’ It’s seen as something that happens in other places that we don't need to address here, even though that is both fundamentally untrue and dismisses America’s history of FGC/M. This narrative of 'othering' leaves whole swaths of women — FGC survivors and other women who have difficulty, pain, or trauma around sex — feeling isolated and without the adequate resources to lead healthy and happy lives. What has been most rewarding about this work is the opportunity it has given me to work with experts in the field and begin to acknowledge and work through my trauma.

Sitting through the webinar as the guest speakers talked about their experience was earth-shattering.

That is why I feel like it is so crucial for all people to watch this webinar. Regardless of whether you are a survivor of FGC, the partner of someone who is a survivor of FGC, someone who suffers pain or trauma around sex, or someone who has no relationship to this issue at all — you should watch this webinar. We have to start bringing these issues forward. We all need to do our part to better understand what so many women are experiencing and how partners, friends, and institutions can play a role in the healing process — because it is so isolating to be left alone in the dark.

What did this internship help you learn about yourself?

When I first applied for this internship, I expected that I would understand FGC better, dispel my own internalized misinformation about the practice, and learn how people worldwide are working towards prevention efforts. While that has all certainly been true, what has been most rewarding about this work is how it has helped me address my own trauma.

I first realized something was different about my body when I was around 12 years old. I had just started my period, and I couldn’t insert a tampon without excruciating pain. It would take me a few years of confusion and intense research to realize that primary vaginismus was what I was experiencing. Primary vaginismus is a muscle condition where the vaginal muscles involuntarily and persistently contract when vaginal penetration in any form is attempted.

Thanks to the internet, I knew other women were suffering from this. Still, no one I knew in my life was talking about this — I hadn't even heard anyone say the word vaginismus out loud until moderating this webinar at Sahiyo. As I got older, a deep sense of unworthiness settled into my psyche — I was sure I was alone in my suffering and that no one would ever be able to love me if I could not have sex.

Going into the internship, I had distanced myself from the organization’s content. I am not a survivor of FGC, so I expected most of my growth to be professional. After all, I had never directly spoken to any who had experienced anything similar to what I was feeling. I felt so isolated and alone, so I had blocked out the possibility that anyone could relate to my experience or offer me any help, including through this internship.

It wasn’t until I was planning this event that I started facing my trauma. Sitting through the webinar as the guest speakers talked about their experience was earth-shattering. I don't want to claim that I understand what it is like to experience FGC because I simply don't know, but a lot of what the guest speakers were talking about really struck at the heart of the shame and pain I felt related to my vaginismus. Finally, I felt like someone understood what it was like to struggle with sex and the weight of the feelings of shame, isolation, and anger that came with that. I am not too proud to admit that I had a very thorough cry once the webinar ended.

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