Organization Spotlight – Orchid Project

Sharing the story of organizations with like minded missions. This week we ask Orchid Project’s Ruthie Taylor, Programme Co-ordinator, about her work and inspiration behind the organization:

First, can you tell us about yourself and how you came to work with the Orchid Project?
I graduated from university in Autumn 2007 with a Masters in Medieval History and
a Bachelor’s in History. I’d spent a lot of time at university doing fundraising and
volunteering, including 2 months spent in Uganda in 2005 and knew that I wanted to work
for a charity. So my first ‘proper’ job was managing fundraising campaigns for the largest
children’s hospice charity in the UK (in fact the world!). I got made redundant in 2009
when the recession started, and so spent most of 2009 volunteering as a project manager
for Raleigh International in Malaysian Borneo, working on environmental and community
projects. When I got back to the UK, I worked in communications and marketing for
a social care organization before meeting Julia Lalla-Maharajh, founder and CEO of
Orchid Project, at an event about careers in international development. I’d always felt
strongly about female genital cutting as an issue and had recently decided that I wanted
to work in international development and particularly on women’s empowerment. I started
volunteering for Orchid in October 2010 and since January 2011 I’ve been full-time paid to
work for Orchid Project as Programme Co-ordinator.

What problem does Orchid Project Solve?
3 million girls a year are at risk of experiencing female genital cutting (FGC) and that’s
just in the 29 African countries where it’s known to be an issue – many more girls in
other countries in the Middle East, Asia and diaspora communities globally are also
affected – and 140 million women worldwide are living with the after-effects of this
damaging tradition. Orchid Project believes that a world without FGC is possible and that
a significant impact can be made towards reducing the prevalence rates around the world
by 2025. We are helping to solve the problem of FGC with a threefold strategy, involving
working with partners in the field who deliver an end to FGC through their programmes,
undertaking communications and awareness-raising activity to ensure people around the
world hear about the FGC and the potential for an end to the practice, and by advocating
at the highest possible level for increased resource to help end FGC. Orchid came
about because our founder had spent time volunteering in Ethiopia and there came to
understand the scale of the problem and its impacts on the lives of girls and women
around the world; our strategy and vision comes out of this experience and is entirely
based in a belief that, when communities understand that FGC is a human rights violation
they will choose to abandon the practice themselves.

What is the most valuable resource to you in the work you’re doing?
Orchid is a new organisation, founded in 2010 and achieving our charitable status in April
2011. One of the most valuable resources we have at our disposal is the huge amount of
activism and work that has already been done around ending FGC in the past 40 years
or so; be that UN documents, World Health Organisation statements, Population Council
surveys or writing, opinion and research by any of the activists who have been working on
FGC. Our partner, Tostan, is our other greatest resource. Before we knew about Tostan,
Orchid Project hadn’t heard of any organisation working in the field and really achieving
success in ending FGC on any great scale – then we were introduced to Tostan, an
NGO which, to date, has enabled over 6,200 communities to choose to abandon FGC
in West Africa. Tostan have been working in West Africa since 1991, so we are small,
young fry compared with them, but our partnership is going from strength to strength
and collaborating with them lets us believe that we will see a world without FGC. For me
personally, one of the most important resources is the other people (almost all women)
who work on Orchid Project. There’s several of us in our office in London, and we can call upon a couple of dozen volunteers around the world, too, so when something urgent
comes up and we need to act fast, there’s always a way.

What is one piece of advice you would like to offer someone doing similar work?
For me, the thing that really motivates me is the fact that we know that an end to FGC
is possible. If it weren’t, I think I would personally find it too difficult to work on this issue
every day. Knowing that our partner Tostan is achieving so many successes at the
grassroots and supporting communities to end FGC really inspires me and helps me
believe that a world without FGC is possible within my lifetime. Having that sort of positive
goal is amazing, and I think looking for the positive examples and successes is really
motivating, and I would advise anyone working in this sort of sector to look for the positives– often it surprises others, too.

Who has been the most influential person in your life as you are working to make a difference?
In terms of my current role, it’s most definitely been Julia, the Founder and CEO of Orchid
Project, without whom I wouldn’t be working on this issue. In a wider way, Heather Corinna (Founder of Scarleteen) has always been an inspiration for me, because of her work on sex-positive sex education. I’m continually inspired by the people around the world working tirelessly to end female genital cutting, and Sister Fa, a Senegalese hip-hop singer who we are supporting is just so inspiring – she sings about FGC and visits remote regions of Senegal on tours, singing about the fact that FGC can end and putting the word out there that cutting should not be what ascribes value to a girl or woman. She is so charismatic and talented it’s a pleasure to work with her.

What is an experience you’ve had that has made you stay motivated in the work
you’re doing?
When I read a first-hand description of female genital cutting, or a particularly visceral
account, or sometimes when I stop and think about what it really means to have been
infibulated (the most extreme form of FGC, when all the external genitalia is removed
and the vaginal opening mostly sewn closed) or to have had one’s clitoris removed – it
really hits home and reminds me why I am working on this. Because I haven’t had to have
that experience, and I am privileged enough to be able to raise my voice and work on the
issue and, hopefully, make a difference. Even typing this out, today, has reminded and re-
motivated me.

When we, as Orchid Project, make some progress that we weren’t expecting to make
quite as quickly as we have done! We’ve started working closely with the UK Government
and we’re hoping we can convince them to invest in ending FGC around the world which
is such an important thing for them to do. Also, working with supporters and community
volunteers and fundraisers who really want to be involved with Orchid – one volunteer
who has organized a series of music events to raise awareness about Orchid Project, and
students at various universities in the UK who want to work on the issue.

How can people join you in what you’re doing?
Orchid Project is active online and has a Facebook page, and you can follow us on Twitter.
Our blog is regularly updated, and, if you’d really like to support our work you can of
course donate. If you choose to donate, a monthly donation is the best way to help us achieve our goal of a world without FGC.

Learn more about Orchid Project at http://www.orchidproject.org/

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