"Information and dialogue concerning human rights can lead a community to question certain behaviours and propel it towards self-directed change."
This is one of the lessons learned shared in this 28-page booklet, which discusses how efforts to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) will be most successful when approaches that are respectful and sensitive of local culture are used, while also recognising that such traditions are deeply entrenched social norms. As stated in the report, "[t]he most successful approaches to FGM/C use facts and human rights principles to empower communities to decide for themselves to abandon the practice." A key factor of success that has been identified is to stimulate a shift in social norms in both the local community and in its networks of intra-marrying communities. Based on examples from Senegal, Kenya, and Sudan, this booklet, published by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) - United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, outlines different ways in which this shift can occur.
The booklet discusses the experience of Tostan in Senegal, which initially relied on Senegal's oral tradition - including songs, dance, poetry, and theatre - to provide knowledge about hygiene, health, literacy, problem-solving, human rights, and democracy. Village women themselves raised the issue of FGM/C during community discussions, and the community took the lead in facilitating dialogues and awareness among themselves and in neighbouring villages. "Over the last sixteen years, three elements - empowering education that fosters in-depth dialogue, organized diffusion of information by participants to their social networks, and collective public declarations - have formed the basis of Tostan's work on FGM/C." Public declarations of abandonment, held at the same time in networks of villages, are cited as a key success factor.
In Kenya, as in Senegal, another key success factor identified is openly discussing and debating the issue within the community. In parts of the country where FGM/C is associated with coming-of-age ceremonies, organisations such as Maendeleo Ya Wanawake are promoting new rituals and practices to replace old ones, without the cutting. "During a week in seclusion, girls entering puberty learn about reproductive health, including HIV and the effects of FGM/C, communication and other 'life skills', children's rights, the culture of their people, and family relations. This is followed by the traditional ceremonies and gift-giving." Engaging village leaders, such as the Council of Elders in Kenya, as well as parents, is considered to be vital to ensuring buy-in. "Alternative rites of passage have been used since the 1980s to discourage FGM/C, said Ms. Gachanja [a programme analyst in the UNFPA Kenya office]. But they are now proving more successful because the entire community is involved in the process from the beginning, and ends with a public pledge."
According to the booklet, with support from UNICEF, the Government of Sudan endorsed a strategy to end FGM/C within a generation. This strategy used the same public dialogue and declarations as elsewhere, but also more directly addressed deep cultural challenges. For example, prior to the intervention, there was no positive word in the local Sudanese Arabic language to denote a person who had not been cut. Coming up with this word was the first step in developing messaging for the planned campaign. The chosen word was "saleema", meaning "whole, intact, healthy in mind and body, unharmed, pristine - in perfect, God-given condition. 'Saleema', which had the advantage of also being a women's name, thus became the centrepiece of a national social marketing campaign that was officially launched in 2010." This mobilisation campaign included promotional products, television, music, billboards, and celebrity and community role models.
While the progress to date is encouraging, the booklet concludes with calls for even more action, including research, to better understand and eventually end FGM/C.
UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme website on September 16 2014.