Diariou Sow, GAMS’ new president

Diariou Seydi SOW is our new president since June 2022. A social worker by training, she knows GAMS well. In this interview, she tells us about each step of her journey leading her to succeed our former president and founder Khadidiatou Diallo. From beneficiary, to trainee, then peer educator and later member of the administrative body, Diariou is a long-time activist. Here is a piece of her story.

How did you become president of GAMS?

It was quite a journey. Before I came to Belgium, I already had an ideology matched the one of GAMS. I arrived in Belgium in 2011, I was staying in a centre for asylum seekers and I was directed to GAMS for an activity. I started by taking part in a Body Expression workshop. It was good for me, so I came back and then it was one thing after another.

Then I did my internship here at GAMS and shortly afterwards I did the peer educator training. I became a member of GAMS Belgium. At the general assembly in June 2018, I applied to become a director on the GAMS board, I was elected and now I have become president after Khadia’s wish to make room for the new generation. I am an activist in the fight against FGM. I like the work on the ground here and also in Guinee (my country of origin). I sometimes work there indirectly on the issue of FGM.

How did you get to GAMS?

When you arrive in Belgium as a woman seeking asylum, you are a bit isolated. I had a lot of questions about what I was experiencing and I was very close to my social worker. She was the one who advised me to come to GAMS. She explained that I would have a first meeting and that I might meet people who could help me.

You have a long history with GAMS, can you tell us more about it?

I started studying social work and did my internship at GAMS in 2016. In my first year of studies, I already had my subject for my final project. I knew I wanted to deal with the issue of FGM during the asylum procedure. So I did my first internship at GAMS to get to know the institutional work and the working methods better. In my third year I did my internship at the Red Cross in Jette, which specifically welcomes non-accompanied minors.

Thanks to these two experiences, I was able to make links between the treatment of FGM and the asylum procedure in Belgium.

Tell us about your experience as a peer educator.

I really wanted to do this training but I was in the asylum procedure. The process is a bit complicated and I went through some difficult moments. When I met GAMS, I was living in the Province of Mons. I had to wait to move. During my internship, I heard about this training for peer educators, which consisted of doing field work, translation or interpretation, with specific training adapted to people affected by FGM. As I myself am affected by FGM and I come from a country where it is practised widely, I find it easier to make contact with people in my community and to support professionals. I enrolled in the training to become a peer educator just after my first-year in the social worker training course.

When I was a beneficiary, I often participated to the Body Expression workshop and it helped me a lot. There are some of my paintings hanging in the corridor at GAMS Brussels. I knew I had experienced violence but I didn’t accept it and didn’t know how to get past that stage. When I came back from each workshop, I would write. In fact, I have a book project that includes everything I have experienced and done and everything I have put in place to rebuild myself. Today, I no longer identify myself as a victim. This is what allows me to provide support and to be ready to go out into the field, to be able to distinguish between what I have experienced and what the people I support are experiencing. You can’t identify directly with the other person because each person is different; each person has their own story. For some people, it is a combination of violence that is the source of suffering.

How did you become part of the Board?

In terms of my personal projects, I told myself that as I gained experience in the field, I could bring something to my community here in Belgium and also in Guinee. I then wanted to get more involved at the strategic level and in decision-making. I wanted to understand how a board of directors functions.

It is a therapeutic as well as a professional journey. What led you to become chairperson?

I never really thought about becoming president of GAMS at the beginning of my involvement. My original intention was to find out what I could do to make a change. I believe we can start small, and make a difference and if I can raise awareness, even at first with changing one person in my community, that’s already a small victory. Doing this on a daily basis and then being asked more and more in my community to become a reference person was a big step for me. As the meetings progressed, my desire and my objective began to grow, particularly through work in the field, and here I am today as president.

How did this proposal come about?

The opportunity arose when the founder of GAMS Belgium and former president decided to leave her place to the new generation. It is not an easy decision or mission for me because I am taking over from Khadidiatou Diallo, who was president for 26 years. It is something incredible. She inspires me a lot and she experienced things when she arrived in Belgium at a time when the issue of mutilation was not very well known and she fought so hard. I would also like to do something which in 20 years’ time remains of influence for future generations. This is not a practice that will be eradicated overnight. So we have to work on changing mentalities. This concerns human beings and I believe people can change. That is why we must continue to raise awareness and take action. It also involves encouraging the education of all children, girls and boys, at school and families. It is from childhood onwards that we are confronted with stigmatisation and this starts with our gender. Every child must have a space to define themselves and believe in their dreams.

I wasn’t encouraged at first, but luckily I’m stubborn. If it depended on some people, I wouldn’t be here today but I really believe in the cause. Even though it is not easy, I know what I am doing is right. I am, by nature, a sensitive person and I don’t know how to keep quiet when facing injustice. I believe that every person deserves to live in dignity.

What is your biggest dream Diariou?

That there will never be another excision, never again, and that a woman living in inner India will have the same value as a boy, that there will be no more difference between the sexes.

You have already carried out two actions since you became president, how do you feel about this exercise and what kind of actions would you like to carry out in the future?

I participated to the anniversary of DCI (Defence for Children International), which campaigns for children’s rights, and I gave a speech at the press conference to present the new figures from the latest prevalence study. It’s all new to me, and it’s an honour to be there for the first time with Khadia and Fabienne, who encourage me a lot. It’s a team effort. I feel well surrounded and supervised and I need it because even if I know GAMS well, being at the head of the association is a big change. I would like to pursue Khadia’s basis, especially on a political level, and create links with the different communities. I would really like to get involved and develop partnership projects in Belgium and in the affected countries in terms of exchanges, training and international networks