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I had the honour yesterday of listening to Yasmin Khan. Yasmin is the founder and chief officer of the Middlesbrough based Halo Project Charitywhich supports victims of honour-based violence, forced marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM).

As I listened to Yasmin, I was struck by the silence in the room. Silence, as we absorbed what we were hearing. Silence, as we heard Yasmin’s harrowing account of the experiences of some of the women who have been supported by the Project. And, silence because the criminal activity that the Project is helping to uncover and stop is so utterly hard to hear.

I tried to imagine how it must feel to live in daily fear for your life, at the hands of abject cruelty, within a community of people that are supposed to love, care for and nurture you. I couldn’t. And, since yesterday afternoon, I’ve thought so much about the people whose stories we heard. Women who have experienced the kind of physical and psychological pain that no person should ever have to encounter. Women who have been murdered because they have brought so-called ‘shame’ or ‘dishonour’ to the family. Women whose genitals have been mutilated by family members and the silence that surrounds this utterly despicable practice. Women who kill themselves because they can no longer cope with the abuse that they experience daily.

On International Women’s Day 2019, let’s talk about breaking the silence that surrounds these crimes. “Break the Silence” is the Project’s strapline, chosen for its aptness and relevance. The noise that’s being created by its existence is loud, necessary and crucial, generating conversations that need to happen in many different settings.

One of the ways that the conversation around FGM will be encouraged is during compulsory relationship and sex education in schools. By 2020, the physical and emotional damage caused by FGM will be discussed with students in secondary school education. Students will be taught that this practice is a form of child abuse and a criminal activity from which women and girls can suffer long-term damage to their phyiscal and mental health.

I have a long held view based on things that have happened in my life: the hardest conversations are the most important to have, yet are often the most difficult to hear. That’s why the room was silent yesterday when Yasmin spoke and what I heard made me think about how different my life is, compared to the lives of the women that the Halo Project supports and protects. It made me realise how easy it is to take my freedom for granted. It made me realise how fortunate I am. And it made me realise the importance of women using their voices to speak out and speak up for women whose voices are silenced.

Yasmin, your voice has spoken. You’ve taken action and brought about great change. Your Halo Project is saving, transforming and making safe the lives of so many. You should be very proud indeed. You’re an incredible woman of Teesside whose achievements I want to celebrate.

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