CASTS OF VULVA’s, an instrument towards female empowerment

From across the Atlantic, independent researcher Magaly Pirotte of SEX-ED + visited GAMS Belgium for two days and made ten casts of vulvas of women who had undergone female genital mutilation as part of an exchange project funded by Wallonie-Bruxelles International-Québec. The Centre Médical d’Aide aux Victimes de l’Excision (CeMAViE) at CHU Saint Pierre, GAMS Belgium and SEX-ED + were able to work together to produce reproductions of external genitalia. The aim? To create an encyclopaedia and tools to better understand the realities of women affected by female genital mutilation in order to better support them. This is happening for the very first time! 

Magaly Pirotte spent a few days in the Belgian capital to make moulds of the vulvas of women who have undergone female genital mutilation. Magaly is an independent researcher and has been working on sex education and sexual and reproductive health for the past fifteen years. With the SEX-ED + project, she creates educational material that presents the diversity of genital anatomy. Her wish is to contribute to the evolution of the discourse on sexuality in order to make them more inclusive and respectful of the diversity of bodies, different identities and experiences in order to feed reflections and practices to promote an anti-oppressive and emancipating sex education.

“We must stop proposing hyper-standardised tools where we only talk about reproduction and diseases. This type of tool locks us into a certain way of talking about sexuality.”

Odile Fillod‘s 3D clitoris: one of the triggers

After years of working as an advocacy officer in family planning, Magaly discovered the 3D clitoris of French researcher Odile Fillod. “This tool revolutionised the way we talk about sexuality. I used it so much that I broke a lot of them. That’s when I came up with the idea of creating a soft one, so that it wouldn’t break. During a trip to Paris, she met the researcher and activists working on the issue of female genital mutilation. Magaly received requests to create soft clitorises to be integrated into a vulva in order to have support when consulting and accompanying women. “The SEX -ED + project began with trials, meetings and the need of the community. In 2018, I applied to a business programme to launch my project. It has been going on ever since,” says the queen of casts.

The meeting in Quebec

In January 2020, Fabienne Richard and Magaly Pirotte met in Montreal during a first Wallonie-Brussels International exchange with Bilkis Vissandjée, a professor at the University’s Faculty of Nursing, a researcher at the University of Montreal’s Institute of Public Health Research (IRSPUM) and RAFIq, the Action Network for the Equality of Immigrant Women and Women of race in Quebec. Fabienne met for coffee in the Quebec researcher’s workshop and was overwhelmed by Magaly’s exploratory work. She returned to Belgium with 3D models and lots of ideas.

“There is no support structure like GAMS Belgium in Quebec.

In Montreal, Magaly was able to make casts of transgender, cisgender and non-binary people. When she wanted to address the issue of female genital mutilation and reconstruction, she realised that there was no support structure similar to GAMS in Quebec. “Just the fact of publicly acknowledging being mutilated is complicated, the community associations were not yet ready to receive me to talk about the project.

Magaly then contacted French and Swiss partners as well as Fabienne Richard to talk about the possibility of carrying out this project through the exchange programme of Wallonie-Bruxelles International. “The project came together organically, whereas for other institutions, it was more complicated to set up. I could never have done this project without the help of GAMS Belgium and CeMAViE. We had to find people who are close to women and who know them,” says the researcher.

Female empowerment and ongoing reflection

The implementation of the project was delayed by COVID, but this allowed time to prepare the women well. Cendrine Vanderhoeven, a sexologist at CEMAVIE in Brussels, was in charge of finding women who would volunteer. She was able to explain all the stages of the process in detail. On the side of GAMS Belgium, a peer educator recruited two women from the Somali community. “It was important to have women from different backgrounds with different types of female genital mutilation to show the diversity of experiences and bodies. Women who have undergone clitoral reconstruction or desinfibulation also participated in the project,” explains Fabienne Richard.

Magaly Pirotte returned to Quebec with ten casts in her suitcases. Our partner then scanned them in 3D and recorded them in a digital database. As for the development of tools, the researchers are in the reflection phase.

“We can see that there is no great distinction between the casts of those who were cut and and those who were not. This, in itself, is an important result because women think that everyone will see they have been subject to FGM. In contrast, we have three examples of clitoral reconstruction casts with different results. We also need to think about adding other media, be it photos, videos or podcasts to document the project,” says Magaly.

To Magaly’s surprise, all the women imvolved asked for a duplicate of their cast while some had never looked or touched themselves.

“The process itself and the feedback from the women was very positive. They were very happy to be able to leave with a cast of their vulva. Many women are ashamed of their bodies and think that as soon as they take off their clothes their partner will see it straight away. It can be reassuring for women who do not dare to begin relationships because of their FGM. “The moment of casting with Magaly and the women involved in the project was an experience of real female empowerment, there was a great atmosphere of laughter and confidence” adds Fabienne.

“There are artistic projects where the approach is to reveal the body of the other, but the SEX ED + project has an approach where everyone takes ownership of the process,” explains Magaly.

An encyclopaedia of genitalia?

Magaly has already collected more than thirty casts of genitalia available in 3D and stored on a digital platform waiting to be placed online.

“Ideally, anyone who needs to print genitalia from the database can do so. For this to happen, I need funding to cover my research costs and the purchase of materials. I consider that this project should be funded by public institutions. It is their responsibility to take charge of the issue of sexuality education. There is a real political demand in my approach. Through the SEX ED + project, there is a variety of educational and inclusive tools, what is left now is to think about funding, access and dissemination of 3D casts on the Internet,” concludes the Quebec researcher.

To be continued…

Written by Leïla El-Mahi