Black Women’s Health and Family Support BWHAFS

  • Established in 1982, Black Women’s Health and Family Support’s primary area of concern is promoting the eradication of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
  • However, we believe that work in this area can only be effective when understood within the overall context of black women’s health and this holistic method has lead to a broad scope of work by the organisation, encompassing grassroots projects which support and empower women and their families in Britain and Africa, as well as influencing policy making at the highest levels … (BWHAFS 1/2).

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Address: Black Women’s Health and Family Support, First Floor, 82 Russia Lane, London, E2 9LU, UK;

BWHAFS 2/2: … In this wide ranging approach, we differ considerably from many other organisations working in the area of FGM, in that we have direct contact with the grassroots of the FGM practicing community, at the same time as carrying out valuable networking and lobbying work.

Our strong relationship with the community is constantly reinforced through the nature of the activities and projects developed by the organisation, enabling us to constantly monitor their concerns and to maintain a cultural sensitivity and respect towards them whilst trying to eradicate the practice of female genital mutialtion.

Black Women’s Health and Family Support was originally conceived of as a platform to bring black women together and facilitate communications between them, so that they can present their demands and fight for effective change. BWHAFS director, Shamis Dirir, first began her work as an activist on her arrival in Britain in 1967, when she found that many African and Arab women were suffering under intense discrimination but were isolated from each other and unable to stand up for themselves against intolerance or harmful practices, such as FGM. She set up a number of organisations (link) which dealt with the practical difficulties facing ethnic minority women in London before setting up BWHAFS (originally London Black Women’s Health Action Project) in the vanguard of the black feminist movement, which began to raise its collective voice in East London in the early 1980s, driven by anger and frustration at their experience of being discriminated against and marginalized.

Since the inception of BWHAFS, we have somewhat shifted the direction of our work from that of the well-being of women as a whole, to formulate programmes that are more culturally specific to the Somali community and to the eradication of female genital mutilation. In our former years the collective voice of black and ethnic minority women was marginal, and provisional services for these women were extremely limited, thus our work focused upon women’s rights and issues as a whole. However, since 1982 the number of organisation’s looking into women’s issues has increased significantly and many other previously inexistent support systems have become established. With recognition of these shifts occurring in Tower Hamlets and the country as whole, BWHAFS narrowed it’s focus to work more closely with the Somali community, this change of direction was also highly influenced by the arrival of large numbers of Somali refugees into Britain following the civil war in the late 1980s.

Programmes designed to raise awareness of the harmful effects of FGM have been extremely successful, and the barriers to eradicating the practice in Somali diaspora communities are generally no longer related to a lack of information, but to wider social and cultural issues. Although the fight to eradicate FGM remains at the forefront of our beliefs as an organisation, we recognise the vital importance of educating and empowering the Somali community as a whole; men and women, old and young, both in Somalia/land and in the international diaspora, in all aspects of their lives. This means that an integral part of the organisation includes projects that deal with social exclusion, cultural identity, education and training for Somalis in East London, as well as the establishment in 1999 of a sister organisation in Somaliland.

The establishment of the Barako Family Health and Education Centre was a milestone in the development of BWHAFS. We realised in the early 1990s that the strong relationship of women to their country of origin meant that our work to eradicate FGM in London could never be successful until attitudes were changed ‘back home’.

To this end, we initiated the Barako project in Burao, Somaliland, and began to focus on working in the East African region. The more recent intergration as a partner in East Africa Four Literacies Programme has lead to a strong collaborative network with other women’s organisations in other countries in East Africa … (full text).

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