Analysis Human Rights

“This One Will Not Be Cut:” How A Movement to End Female Genital Mutilation is Spreading Through Senegal

Jodi Jacobson

A campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation has taken off in Senegal. What if, with the incredibly small sums of money needed by the United Nations campaign to fund these strategies across a continent, we could end FGM within the next ten to 15 years? Both UNICEF and UNFPA work to end FGM, though the GOP-led House of Representatives is seeking to eliminate funding for both.

Across Africa, according to the World Health Organization an estimated 92 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), a procedure that involves removing all or part of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. FGM, a traditional practice rooted in custom and beliefs about female “purity” may include:

  • Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  • Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  • Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  • Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

FGM is performed on girls ranging from infancy to age 15.  FGM is a human rights abuse. It has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.  There are both immediate and long-term implications for women and girls who have undergone the procedure.

FGM has persisted in many countries because of deeply held beliefs about controlling female sexuality, female “purity,” and marriageability of women.

But now, as Celia Dugger reports in the New York Times, efforts to end FGM seem to have reached a tipping point, at least in the country of Senegal where more than 5,000 Senegalese villages have joined a growing movement to end the practice.

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It’s a cultural and generational change that has built on persistent investments in educating village leaders and families about the harms caused by FGM.  Dugger writes:

The change is happening without the billions of dollars that have poured into other global health priorities throughout the developing world in recent years. Even after campaigning against genital cutting for years, the United Nations has raised less than half the $44 million it set as the goal.

In Senegal, writes Dugger, “Tostan, a group whose name means “breakthrough” in Wolof, Senegal’s dominant language, has had a major impact with an education program that seeks to build consensus, African-style, on the dangers of the practice, while being careful not to denounce it as barbaric as Western activists have been prone to do. Senegal’s Parliament officially banned the practice over a decade ago, and the government has been very supportive of Tostan’s efforts.”

“Before you would never even dare to discuss this,” said Mamadou Dia, governor of the Kolda region where this village is located. “It was taboo. Now you have thousands of people coming to abandon it.”

Over the past 15 years, the drive to end the practice has gained such momentum, writes Dugger, “that a majority of Senegalese villages where genital cutting was commonplace have committed to stop it.”

Now, “[w]ith too few resources to replicate Tostan’s health and human rights classes across Africa, Nafissatou Diop, who coordinates the United Nations-led campaign to end the practice, is looking for quicker, cheaper strategies to change social conventions on cutting. Tostan has pursued an ambitious effort here with support from Unicef and others, but its two- to three-year program costs about $21,000 per village — a substantial sum considering the countless villages that continue the practice.”

“The program is transformative, and I love that as an African woman,” said Ms. Diop, who is Senegalese, “but we need to move faster.”

What if, with the incredibly small sums of money needed by the United Nations campaign to fund these strategies across a continent, we could end FGM within the next ten to 15 years? Both UNICEF and UNFPA work to end FGM, though the GOP-led House of Representatives is seeking to eliminate funding for both.

Commentary Human Rights

Eliminating Female Genital Mutilation—A Public Health and Cultural Perspective

Dr. Belkis Giorgis

Culture is one of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives, particularly as it relates to sexual and reproductive behavior, attitudes, and norms. Therefore, when we talk about female circumcision (I still cannot call it mutilation), we should always look at this cultural practice as one of many good and bad things that happen to women universally, and not only to African women but women worldwide.

Cross-posted with permission from the Global Health Impact blog.

I was circumcised when I was eighty days old, as is the tradition in Ethiopia. My sister was three. My mother had tried to spare us, but her aunt discovered that we were not circumcised and took it upon herself to have us circumcised.

Years later, I asked my aunt why she did it. Her response was not defensive. On the contrary, she responded very matter-of-fact: My sister and I were circumcised so that we could find a husband, have children, and become women. This is the cultural ideology that most Ethiopian women believed at that time, and unfortunately, that many still adhere to in the 21st century—an ideology and practice that is detrimental to a woman’s health.

Female genital circumcision alters or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. There are no health benefits for girls. On the contrary, the procedure can lead to severe bleeding, infections, and problems urinating, during sexual intercourse, and complications in childbirth, as well as later cysts and increased risk of newborn deaths—not to mention the severe pain and shock of the procedure.

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As a person working in the area of public health, I believe that the eradication of female circumcision is a priority for girls in Africa. In the 1980s, the issue of female circumcision was brought to light in the western world. As a young African feminist, I wrote and argued for not using the term mutilation when describing female circumcision. I argued this because I did not see my mother or my aunt as people who mutilated me, but as people who allowed the act to be performed out of ignorance, love, and compelling cultural traditions. They felt that for me to be a woman, to have children, and to find a husband, I had to undergo this operation. During that time, the sensationalism around these issues also made feminists and pan-Africanists like me believe that a double standard was being used in defining, denying, and indicting our culture.This is precisely why I pose this food for thought regarding the use of the term mutilation: from my cultural lens, for example, a woman who gets breast implants belongs to a culture that glorifies a woman’s youth and beauty in such a way that it forces some women to resort to operations – like breast augmentation – that are not necessary. But then again, it is hardly ever said that a woman mutilates herself when she gets breast implants …

Culture is one of the most sensitive aspects of people’s lives, particularly as it relates to sexual and reproductive behavior, attitudes, and norms.

Therefore, when we talk about female circumcision (I still cannot call it mutilation), we should always look at this cultural practice as one of many good and bad things that happen to women universally, and not only to African women but women worldwide. The manifestations of this culture are varied and the interpretation we give to each of them should be informed by a respect to how people view their culture and that of others.

While I vehemently fight for the elimination of this culture, as one who has been a victim of it and a public health professional, I challenge readers and those of us working to eradicate this practice to view it within the larger framework of how women suffer from different forms of oppression in the name of culture throughout the world – as the recent United Nations ban on Female Genital “Mutilation” articulates. The ban is a significant milestone towards the ending of harmful practices and violations that constitute serious threats to the health of women and girls. It is a very important step to bringing about cultural and attitudinal change: we cannot hide behind our cultural traditions to defend practices that harm women. On the other hand, we also cannot judge and indict people who in the name of culture perform acts out of ignorance and a lack of understanding of the harm such practices have on women.

As we commemorate International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital “Mutilation”/Cutting, we must continue to work toward eradicating the practice—even as we push toward culturally appropriate descriptions and intervention—and improving the health of women and girls in all parts of the world.

Follow LMG at @LMGforHealth and MSH at @MSHHealthImpact

News Human Rights

A Moratorium on Mutilation: Community Organizations Find Their Own Path To Ending a Dangerous Practice

Jessica Mack

While the UN is still celebrating International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation, Tostan, a global rights and health organization, and others are enjoying “International Female Genital Cutting Abandonment Day.” The difference in phrasing is subtle, but the significance is huge.

Yesterday was International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a UN-sponsored day dedicated to raising awareness of the thousands year-old practice whereby a girl or woman’s genitals are cut. The WHO estimates that about 140 million women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. It’s considered by many to be harmful to a woman’s health and rights, as consent is rarely involved and the procedure is rarely done in hygienic settings.

The practice is often described in the most cringe-worthy and heart string-pulling ways (think legs tied down, shards of glass cutting at a young girl’s genitals, for example) and has roots that are centuries old and spread round the world. The act is not religiously based – though it’s often (mistakenly) attributed to or equated with Islam – but rather based in historical cultural concepts of women’s worth and value.

Notably, the most successful campaign in history to end FGM is run by a global organization called Tostan, whose efforts in Senegal to support community-led resistance to the practice have hinged on refraining from paternalistic tsk-tsking of the practice. They don’t call it FGM, but rather FGC – female genital “cutting” – a term just as accurate but devoid of judgment that could put community members, deeply attached to the practice, off. (It is also sometimes called female circumcision.)

While the UN is still celebrating zero tolerance on FGM, Tostan and many others are enjoying “International FGC Abandonment Day.” The difference in phrasing is subtle, but the significance is huge. Rather than approaching FGC as a cultural cancer that must be eradicated, Tostan and others have approached it as a choice that can be changed, or “abandoned,” as new figures, facts, and attitudes come to light. Agency is protected and the power of community is respected. The idea is that this must happen at the grassroots level, driven by the community themselves.

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Through an education initiative that places FGC in the context of broader health and human rights, Tostan has engendered one individual advocate after another, who have gone on to organize themselves in consensus to abandon the practice. In just about a decade, there has been major headway in Senegal to disavow the practice, with a domino effect that keeps going.

While community education efforts have been hugely successful, global media has played a surprisingly central role in magnifying its effects. In a her recent book, “Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World,” Maria Armoudian explores a number of case studies from around the world, in which media has played an integral role in driving social change. In particular, Armoudian highlights the importance of global media coverage in complementing Tostan’s work.

Coverage of FGC has broadened and diversified from simply horror stories about the practice to depictions of what is working. This is important. Armoudian writes that while,

“Media coverage alone may not have attained the same results in such a short period of time […] the media were essential for three critical reasons: they created awareness about the bigger concepts; they lifted the issue from secrecy; and they associated FGC’s end with important goals that protected girls and advanced human rights. […] By demonstrating the growing acceptance of FGC’s renunciation, mass media coverage prevented the social shunning of a people accepting change.”

This last point is critical. The stigma against not having your daughter cut – that she would be unclean, unattractive, or un-marriageable, is a collective one that is refracted through communities. When individuals are given the space to decide not to participate in FGC, and then see that choice echoed elsewhere, the validation is powerful.

Global media coverage of successful anti-FGC efforts such as that of Tostan in Senegal wield cross-cultural power as communities around the world start similar movements. While the practice is often widely discussed as an “African problem,” far less attention has been paid to is as it exists in countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan and across the Middle East, and very little research on it there exists.

Efforts there to organize renunciation are burgeoning, with the first-ever conference on FGC in the Middle East took place in Lebanon last month. The meeting’s goal was to establish an anti-FGC network and begin developing a strategy for its abandonment. However, while the Arab Spring could provide space for new discussions and new research, a recent article from the Stonegate Institute suggests the converse: “with the political ascendancy in Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood, with which Al-Qaradawi has been associated, there is a real danger that FGM will increase as a feature of the ostensible “re-Islamisation” of Egypt.”

Anti-FGC efforts in the Middle East may be uphill, but then again, when is it ever easy to change cultural beliefs and attitudes? It will be interesting to see whether any lessons learned from Tostan’s successes or more matured anti-FGC efforts elsewhere in Africa provide a road map for nascent efforts in the Middle East.

In the meantime, the International Day of Zero Tolerance is providing a megaphone for global rights groups to call for tougher anti-FGC laws. Yet given Tostan’s wild success, deeply community-rooted in its nature, it is unclear whether a focus on national laws is the fastest way forward. After all, child marriage is outlawed in India though still widely practiced. While anti-FGC laws would send a powerful and clear message that female genital cutting is wrong, it is the community that has the power to actually change the reality.