West Africa: FGM - communities choose health over tradition

In early December, about 150 communities in Guinea collectively abandoned the practice of female genital cutting - a landmark declaration in a country where more than 97 percent of women undergo the ritual.
Delegations led by women from each village converged on the central Guinean town of Lalya to speak about genital excision and participate in the declaration. All of Guinea’s ethnic groups practice genital cutting, despite a law that forbids it.
The Senegal-based NGO Tostan organised the Guinea declaration after working with communities to show how traditional practices such as genital cutting are harming individuals and communities.

Khady Bah Faye, Tostan’s communications officer, told IRIN on Monday that the Guinea declaration shows that momentum against the harmful practice is growing in Africa. She said Tostan has also been getting requests for assistance from The Gambia, Burkina Faso and Benin. The NGO has also worked in Mali and is about to begin in Mauritania.

More than 1,800 communities in Senegal, where excision is practiced among 28 percent of the population, have publicly abandoned genital cutting in the past nine years, Faye said. She said the continued rate of abandonment after at least two years was 65-80 percent.

“This has been a practice that has gone on for 2,000 years and yet it is going to take an understanding by people who believe this is part of their culture to understand the dangers to women so it can be eliminated,” Ann Veneman, executive director of the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF), recently told reporters in Dakar.

UNICEF and the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend Tostan’s program as a “best practice” for social empowerment.

Changing norms

Various forms of female genital cutting are practiced in about 28 countries across Africa. A traditional way of keeping women chaste and eligible for marriage, excision removes part or all of the external labia and clitoris. The most severe form of the practice involves sewing the opening of the vagina to a hole about the size of a matchstick for the passage of menstrual blood and urine.

Excision can lead to haemorrhage, infection, complications during pregnancy and long-term psychological scarring, according to WHO.

Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching said the group is not trying to eradicate genital cutting, but to educate communities about democracy and human rights.

“It’s not in our objectives to tell people to change. It is within our objectives to inform,” Melching said.

She compares the phasing out of genital excision to the eradication of foot binding in China in the early 20th Century. That practice, which aimed to reduce foot size to make girls more attractive, disappeared in a generation.

Tostan uses theatre, role-playing, and other hands-on methods in local languages to educate communities and bring people together. The programme relies on community members themselves reaching consensus about how they will deal with such issues as the environment, domestic violence, childhood marriage and genital excision.

“Human rights becomes a goal for people, for a community,” Melching said. “There are different ways of achieving that goal. Once people agree on this they have new norms. Before they thought [genital cutting] was necessary to create cohesion. When they learn it doesn’t there’s a new convention, new norms.”

Community approach

Communities abandon excision collectively because they inter-marry. Melching likened the process to a country deciding to switch which side of the road people drive on. Everyone has to change the norm together or the few who try to change will be forced to rejoin the common traffic.

Melching notes that although African men steeped in tradition were reluctant to alter their views on genital cutting, they began to change after they became aware of the dangers of genital excision. Previously, men and women did not discuss such issues.

“It’s really when they began to get the men, the leaders of the communities, particularly the imams, together with women to hear about what this has really meant in their lives and how it may have impacted their own daughters or nieces or their grandchildren that they began to realise that this has harmful effects,” Veneman said.

4 December 2006, IRIN