About female genital cutting

Female genital cutting is ending. Communities in Africa are choosing to abandon FGC following participation in human-rights based empowerment programmes.

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Why end FGC?

An end to FGC supports a woman’s life choices that can lead to her economic and social empowerment. These include delaying the age at which a girl leaves school, the age at which she marries and the age that she has her first child, therefore enabling her greater access to jobs and financial opportunities. FGC is also linked to a number of rights issues concerning women and girl’s disempowerment including violence against women and harmful traditional practices.

Female genital cutting is an abuse of human, women’s and child rights. It contravenes a girl’s right to a whole body. It happens to girls without their permission and often against their will.  It increases and perpetuates gender inequality. When FGC is practised on girls at a young age, it is often a precursor to child marriage, a further violation of girls’ rights.

FGC violates treaty provisions in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (Banjul Charter), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) categorises FGC as a violent act against women and girls. The WHO has supported research on the harmful health consequences that affect a woman throughout her lifetime.

The health problems caused by FGC contravene the universal right to health that everyone is entitled to.

How does FGC end?

We know that female genital cutting is held in place by the entire community. Even if one person wants to leave their daughter uncut, it will be hard for them to act alone. The entire community must be engaged in a decision to collectively abandon FGC.

Programmes that are based on education and empowerment, allowing communities to understand more about their human rights and responsibilities and also allowing them to talk openly about FGC are the most effective.

Female genital cutting ends by an entire community choosing to abandon the practice and then collectively declaring this in front of one another. This means that the existing social norm of cutting their daughters shifts to a new social norm of not cutting their daughters.

A social norm is an expectation that influences people’s behaviour in a society. Like many harmful traditional practices, FGC is a social norm that upholds broader moral norms such as chastity and cleanliness.

Once it is acknowledged that the practice is a constructed norm, people realise that FGC is not a useful or positive part of their lives, and they choose to abandon it. To solidify this commitment, public declarations of abandonment are vital. When a group of people stand up and publicly declare that they will no longer practice FGC, they are held accountable by everyone.

In addition, the abandoning community must invite its inter-marrying communities to witness the declaration. This is because the witnessing community must be aware that their sons will now marry uncut daughters. The communities witnessing the public declaration also begin to question their own practices. This knowledge spreads through local, national and ultimately regional levels.

Abandonment spreads exponentially. Since communities are linked via social networks, abandonment becomes quicker and easier as the movement gains momentum. This process of “organised diffusion” is what we are seeing in Senegal – a country which could completely abandon FGC by 2015.

24 villages declaring their abandonment of FGC

24 villages declaring their abandonment of FGC

FGC programmes need to be non-directive and non-judgemental. Rather than dictating actions, opening up a conversation on the practice and its health and human rights impacts leads to self-directed questioning of practices and eventual abandonment.

Our partner Tostan takes the following approach, that leads to FGC abandonment:

Starting the Programme

Villages learn about Tostan’s programme in a variety of ways, most often by word of mouth. When a village has requested Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme and funding is available, the community is informed about what Tostan provides and what it must contribute.

Villages understand that they will receive a systematic curriculum for the classes, a chance to interact and discuss what they are learning, and a trained facilitator whose stipend is paid by Tostan. In turn, the villages must provide a meeting place for the classes and feed and house the facilitator, who lives in the community.

These mutual commitments are meant to ensure that the communities with whom Tostan works take ownership of the programme and understand that the programme is a partnership whose success depends on their active engagement and participation.

Classes

Each village runs two classes of 25 to 30 participants – one for adults and one for adolescents – that meet three times per week over the course of the programme. By holding separate classes for the two groups, Tostan ensures that both younger and older generations can participate and contribute comfortably in the classroom while gaining the tools and confidence to actively apply what they learn in their community. The CEP has two phases, the Kobi and the Aawde. Both phases contain specific modules, which are units of sequenced information organized around a theme.

Visit Tostan’s website to learn more about the CEP. 

When could FGC end?

The UN stated aim is to see female genital cutting end “within the next generation.” FGC has gained more attention and interest at the local, regional, national, and international levels recently. We need to build on this momentum. We are at an unprecedented point in history – FGC could end within this generation.

We believe ending FGC within a generation is entirely achievable. Given what we know about how the harmful traditional practice of footbinding ended in China within twenty years, we believe this can be achieved, if abandonment can reach tipping point and critical mass in practising communities, leading to exponential change.

Footbinding dated back to the tenth century, and was almost universal throughout China until the practice was abandoned within one generation in the early 1900s.  Many similarities can be drawn between footbinding and FGC, and how the right conditions can motivate mass change. Because footbinding was a social convention that needed a shift in norms to change, the same strategy can be used in the abandonment of FGC.

There is a unique, historic opportunity to invest in a movement of change – we really could be the last generation to live with FGC.

What needs to happen to end FGC?

In order for female genital cutting to end globally, there needs to be a wider awareness of the issue itself and its scale and impact. Once this realisation is made, it can lead to stakeholders understanding better why action to end FGC needs to happen. All stakeholders need to contribute to an environment that allows for such progress to take place.

Change will ultimately only happen at community level and they themselves need to break the taboo around FGC by holding open dialogues around the issue. Human rights based educational programmes also open up space for discussion on the harmful traditional practice. This can be supported by campaigns that spark awareness and conversation where appropriate.

Depending on the region, harnessing the influence of religious leaders is important in establishing a movement for change. Many practising communities believe that FGC is dictated by their religion. Once they realise that there is no link between religion and female genital cutting, the practice becomes easier to abandon.

Sharing knowledge on the health consequences is also important when addressing FGC. Frequently, individuals are unaware of how damaging the practice is to a woman and girl’s health. By acknowledging the harmful health implications, communities are more likely to challenge their continuation of the practise. It should be noted however, that simply approaching FGC by addressing the health consequences can lead to medicalisation of the practice, as people believe this is safer.

Once communities realise that FGC is harmful, is not linked to religion, and has health impacts, a collective decision to abandon is more likely. People are more willing to give up the practice when they realise that it is not a positive tradition, but an unnecessary, harmful one. In other words, an enabling environment needs to be established before full abandonment can take place.

What can donors, NGOs and governments do to end FGC?

Donors

Female genital cutting is an under-resourced issue. Certain programmes are proving very successful in leading abandonment and it is important to provide funding to help scale these efforts, and also to find new ways to reach other FGC practising communities.

It is also important for donors to realise that behavioural change programmes at community level may not fit short-term funding cycles.  Effective community programmes are generally three years long, before they result in abandonment.  These programmes can also result in many other positive outcomes for communities, including abandonment of child marriage, an increase in peace and security and better women’s empowerment.

Donors who are investing in maternal health, reproductive health, child health, newborn health, human rights, democracy and freedom, gender equality and increased women’s empowerment should all consider if they are working in FGC practising communities and the impact that FGC may have on their programmes.

More evidence-based FGC research needs to be done and it is important that this is put in place now, so that we can continue to make the case over the next few years. It is vital to assess and understand how to end FGC effectively and sustainably for future generations. There is a strong case to be made for research into FGC abandonment in conjunction with funding grassroots projects that are having real impacts.

NGOs

NGOs can address female genital cutting (FGC) by integrating it into their programmes in the areas of health, women’s rights, human rights and education.

FGC links with many other issues on the development agenda and ending FGC would contribute to achieving a number of the Millennium Development Goals including gender equality, child health and maternal health, as well as having an impact on HIV and on achieving universal primary education.

An end to FGC supports a woman’s life choices that can lead to her economic and social empowerment. These include delaying the age at which a girl leaves school, the age at which she marries and the age that she has her first child, therefore enabling her greater access to jobs and financial opportunities. FGC is also linked to a number of rights issues concerning women and girl’s disempowerment including violence against women and harmful traditional practices.

Joined-up action across NGOs would really strengthen the case at national and international level for the appropriate level of investment made by donor governments that is required to end FGC. If international NGOs adopted FGC as an issue, it would no longer have the status of a neglected and underfunded issue. We would urge all NGOs and INGOs working in FGC practising countries to review their programmes to see how they can actively work on female genital cutting.

Governments of practising countries

Those working for local government, such as police, medical practitioners, community workers and others in direct services should be informed and trained on how to deal with FGC. This could be training about social norms or about abandonment, it must also be about child protection and how best to ensure that laws are enforced appropriately.

Education systems need to address FGC in the curriculum for both boys and girls. Teachers need to be aware of the issues that girls may have about dropping out of school or menstruation issues. FGC messaging that supports abandonment can be introduced in the media. Religious leaders, government officials and musicians and celebrities can contribute their influential voices to support abandonment.

Governments of practising countries can implement appropriate laws and policies to support abandonment of female genital cutting. Governments should also recognise that there is a financial cost of working with FGC and should budget for this accordingly.

Practising countries need to develop support services for women who have been cut. Training also needs to be provided to medical staff to support women who have been cut. Women should also be encouraged to seek medical support for the host of health impacts that FGC can lead to.

Governments of non-practising countries

Governments of non-practising countries can implement appropriate legislation and policies to prevent girls from diaspora populations being taken overseas and cut. In the cases of immigrant communities where FGC is known to be practised, there needs to be integrated medical and psychological support for women who have been cut.

Health and educational workers need to be trained to look for the signs of risk of FGC and FGC itself amongst young people to act appropriately. Police and medical staff should be trained to deal with FGC reports. The government can also take a strong public anti-FGC stance and provide funding and resources to scale community programmes that are effectively facilitating abandonment.

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