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.