Lessons from the Field

Publication Date
July 1, 2017

The 2016 Annual Report for the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting provides two perspectives: The main document analyses progress in quantitative terms, offering profiles of each of the 17 programme countries. A partnership between the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Joint Programme works to apply a culturally sensitive, human-rights-based approach that strategically leverages social dynamics to promote abandonment of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). This companion booklet uses a qualitative and narrative approach to examine more specifically the challenges, complexities, and achievements on the ground. It explores the approaches the Joint Programme teams, partners, and activists employ to deconstruct the social norms that allow FGM/C to continue in many communities.

In prefacing the 17 approaches, the report explains that working to end FGM/C is complicated because it not one practice - rather, it is a tradition that carries different meanings for different communities, and sometimes multiple meanings within one community. FGM/C may be ostensibly practised for reasons of hygiene or aesthetics, or out of a sense of religious, cultural or familial obligation. What makes ending FGM/C so complex is that, in almost all contexts, parents genuinely want to do what is right for their child and family.

The 17 ways include:

  1. Find silver linings - The pause in the practice due to the Ebola health crisis in Guinea offered the Joint Programme an opportunity to intensify community mobilisation, supported by advocacy from health experts, religious leaders, civil society organisations, traditional healers, and communicators (including "griots", who, for centuries, have played an important role in sharing information and maintaining an oral history of the people through music and performance), folk artists and musicians, and young leaders. During this period, the Joint Programme team revisited its advocacy strategy and targeted special efforts towards religious leaders, who were provided with in-person opportunities for learning and reflection, specifically on FGM/C. This led to consensus and collective action, including a conference of 350 religious leaders opened by the Head of State and the Prime Minister. Later in the year, the Religious Affairs Secretariat General launched a national campaign urging abandonment of the practice, with the support of the Ministry for Social Action. Guinean youth from across the country were trained to organise community dialogues and discussions about FGM/C and other forms of gender-based violence. Communicators informed and mobilised communities through animated radio and television broadcasts. Celebrities also spoke out, helping to break the taboo against discussing FGM/C publicly.
  2. Accentuate the positive - On Tutti Island in Sudan, the transformation of grandmothers, who had long been advocates for the practice, into agents of positive change began with organised discussions over coffee, an important tradition in the community. The national Saleema campaign, with branding featuring a swirling pattern and an orange, green, and white palette, aims to link the state of being left uncut with a range of positive qualities, including "whole, healthy in body and mind, unharmed, intact, pristine, and untouched, in a God-given condition." It encourages a new discourse and way of thinking about FGM/C within the family and community, as an opening for new social norms to emerge around the idea that being uncut is natural and desirable.
  3. Orchestrate local efforts - Funds for the above-mentioned Tutti initiative have been channelled through the Ahfad University for Women (AUW), a long-time partner of UNFPA in the region. AUW created coordination and partnership mechanisms that improved the quality of activities, reduced duplication of efforts, ensured unity of action in the face of disruptive forces, and encouraged mutual empowerment.
  4. Build up social capital - "Dagu" is a sophisticated indigenous system in Ethiopia that keeps accurate, sourced information flowing quickly among the Afar people across vast distances. In recent years, dagu, along with another traditional structure - formal community dialogues, or "meblo" - have helped disseminate new knowledge about FGM/C and build consensus towards abandoning the practice.
  5. Create webs of protection - Engaging, participatory activities, often rooted in theatre, are a specialty of Y-PEER, a youth-led organisation that has been especially active in Egypt. "Using theatre as a creative and educational tool provides an opportunity to debunk myths, influence behavior and present sensitive topics not normally discussed in public." The group creates and produces community performances and peer education seminars, as well as training additional peer educators. The school-based activities are reinforced by activities in the villages, at health providers, and in several media campaigns. The Government has mainstreamed FGM/C in the education, health, culture, safety and security, and legal ministries, which provide a high-level layer of support for this multisectoral approach.
  6. Support commitments - In two sub-zones of Eritrea's Anseba region, the Ministry of Health devised a simple way to follow up on declarations that encourages transparency, visibility, affirmation, and competition. The ministry produced a simple decal that says "My house is FGM-free" in Tigre, the local language. Ten thousand stickers were printed, and now adorn many entryways. The decals, which serve as a public declaration of individual actions, make changing attitudes and behaviour apparent.
  7. Work from within - Only a small fraction of girls throughout Uganda are cut. But FGM/C is almost universally practised among many indigenous peoples in the country. Recognition that effective strategies to eliminate FGM/C need to begin with a strong understanding of the deeper cultural context brought the Vision Care Foundation team, local partners of the Joint Programme, into out-of-the-way shrines high in the mountains to meet with respected spirit healers, the gatekeepers of these cultures. After the significant health problems associated with FGM/C were discussed and acknowledged, alternatives were proposed.
  8. Stay open to opportunities - Along the Uganda-Kenyan border, the 2016 blooming of a particular shrub, which had last flowered in 1960, raised an alarm among the elder Sabiny healers. The flowering is believed to be a terrible omen for anyone being cut (both men and women undergo genital cutting as part of an elaborate rite of passage). Partners are using this pause in the cuttings to emphasise the inherent health impacts of FGM/C.
  9. Put it all together - Burkina Faso pursues a holistic approach involving a country engaged in wide-ranging discussion, swayed by influential people, educated through schools and service providers, reminded by radio shows and popular music, encouraged by community commitments, nudged by laws and sanctions, and offering sensitive care to survivors when needed. In 2016 alone, nearly 3,000 events - including discussion groups, theatre performances, forums, debates, and family dialogues - engaged some 75,000 people. Radio stations, television, newspapers, and leaflets have all been used to highlight the dangers of the practice, including the fact that it is illegal. Because literacy rates are low, community radio is an important part of the media mix, as is popular music. A recent song, "Tomber la Lame" ("Drop the Blade"), by the popular rapper Smockey, presents an anti-FGM/C message through poetic yet graphic lyrics.
  10. Implement sanctions progressively - After passing a law criminalising FGM/C in 1996, the Government of Burkina Faso wisely did not initially attempt to impose harsh penalties. Rather, it focused first on making practising communities more aware of the harms caused by FGM/C. That way, laws and attitudes change in sync.
  11. End impunity - The Joint Programme is working closely with Doctors Against FGM, the Ministry of Health and Population, and the National Population Council, among others, to integrate FGM/C into the curriculum of the country's medical schools, which will teach that it is a harmful practice. Participating physicians, who are highly respected in their communities, are trained not only in the medical reasons against the procedure; they also learn how to counsel and dissuade parents from it.
  12. Use media creatively - Gambia, Senegal, Somalia and others use sophisticated communication campaigns, involving mainstream newspapers and television reports, SMS (text) messaging and the full range of social media, theatre productions, and television and radio melodramas. The Joint Programme encourages the appropriate mix of media to reach specific audiences with the right messages. It also employs media tactically to foster personal communication and guide community activities. In Somalia, sermons are an important and ubiquitous communication channel, which get people thinking and talking. Many other examples are provided - for instance, the Facebook page hosted by Joint Programme partner Candlelight disseminates compelling infographics, survivor stories and advocacy, as well as news about ongoing progress in legislation against FGM/C, in both English and local languages. Several of the video reports on the page are extremely poignant.
  13. Build bridges - This includes linking diasporas from Guinea-Bissau and Mali with their roots. Migrants tend to remain well respected and influential in their home communities, so it is critical to involve them in awareness-raising activities.
  14. Man up - Several examples of campaigns in which men from Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan stand up for women are offered. For instance, in the #TouchePasAMaSoeur Twitter and social media campaign from Senegal, men were pictured proudly holding signs or wearing T-shirts that disavowed FGM/C with the slogan "Don't touch my sister." Without advocacy outreach, however, many men still regard FGM/C as a women's issue and are reluctant to get involved.
  15. Enlist tribal elders - The traditional councils in Nigeria wield considerable power in upholding social norms. In recognition of this, in 2016, the Joint Programme mobilised traditional chiefs and religious leaders to support community declarations of abandonment of FGM/C in Imo, Ebonyi, and Osun states. Events organised by the First Ladies of those states were marked by ceremonies, broad representation of both traditional and government leaders, and strong statements in support of the initiative.
  16. Power up partnerships - In Kenya, World Vision was named the lead implementing partner of the Joint Programme in focus counties, where it also coordinates the work of other grass-roots organisations. World Vision's "Channels of Hope" methodology, with a version tailored specifically to gender issues, child protection, and community change, helps structure community dialogues that offer participants factually correct information and insight, and empower them to become agents of change.
  17. Work with the grass roots - Before undertaking any interventions, World Vision assesses the grass-roots support available from community- and faith-based organisations; self-help groups of men, women and youth; and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

UNFPA website, August 21 2017. Image credit: © UNFPA /Omar Gharzeddine