Changing attitudes to FGM/C one family at a time
By Michael Bociurkiw
Assiut, July 5, 2007 – For many young Egyptian girls, the coming of the summer holidays can bring fear rather than joyful thoughts of long days at play with their friends and family.
In Egypt, summer is the traditional time for the practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM/C). Girls as young as nine years old are visited by midwives or taken to a clinic to be circumcised, often with tragic consequences.
In Upper Egypt, and indeed throughout the country, studies show that the vast majority of girls and women are circumcised. The practice – whose origins date back more than two thousand years -- is widely seen as a necessary step towards womanhood, and as a requirement for a girl to be accepted in marriage as it protects their chastity. Girls and women who are not circumcised suffer stigmatization.
But recent events are bringing about a gradual shift in how people in rural Egypt see the controversial practice.
Last week several hundred people in this Upper Egypt city took part in a march supporting the elimination of FGM/C. Organized by the National Council on Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) it was held several days after the tragic death of Budoor –a 12-year old girl in a private clinic near Minya, also in Upper Egypt. Large posters of Budoor adorned the streets during the march.
"Three or four years ago this type of march wouldn’t have been possible," said a United Nations programme officer.
While such public marches receive substantial attention the real grassroots work takes place in rural villages where traditional ways have been hardened over time.
The UNICEF-supported Assiut Childhood and Development Association (ACDA) deploys field workers to speak to rural families about the dangers of FGM/C. Using a mix of persuasion, facts and even table-top plastic models – the workers find they have to be extremely innovative when speaking about FGM/C. At times they face a wall of resistance but this does not dissuade them.
"It's far easier to convince parents to send their child to school than it is to put a stop to FGM," said one worker, adding that intimidation of field workers is common.
The NGO uses so-called positive deviants - individuals who have strong personal convictions against FGM/C or went through certain past experiences that led them to where they are now - and are prepared to try and persuade others in their community that it is both unnecessary and harmful. UNICEF works with a handful of Egyptian NGOs and groups of positive deviants to encourage communities not to subject their daughters to the same custom.
"Positive deviants are crucial actors in our work since they are usually from the villages they work in so they are well-known and trusted and this facilitates our work a lot," says Nevine Rasmi, the ACDA Field Coordinator. "We also work with religious sheikhs, mayors and doctors as these are influential and well-respected people who can make a real impact on the community."
The field workers say that the best way to effect a change in behaviour towards FGM/C is to present audiences with a package of useful information – and to not limit awareness sessions to just one topic. "Otherwise they will ask us 'You don’t have anything else to give us other than FGM information?'"
They add that outreach has to happen at many levels – to parents, teachers, medical professionals and even school children. "The awareness sessions in schools can be very successful. It increases awareness among girls before they become mothers. Some students will also go home and try to influence their parents," said an ACDA field worker.
There are subtle hints that attitudes towards FGM/C among rural Egyptian families is changing. "Before there used to be celebrations after a FGM took place but you don’t see this any more," said one field worker. "Now people are saying it deserves to be thought about."
Field workers say they have more access to villages than before. As recently as three years ago at least one village refused entry to anyone carrying FGM-related messages. In another instance a village Sheikh cut off water to farmers so they could not attend a FGM session.
Still, parents who denounce FGM are reluctant to make their decision public for fear of being ostracized. Said a field worker: "People are waiting before announcing their decision (not to practice FGM). They fear they will be insulted. Or worse – men won't agree to marry their daughters."
Rasmi says she now has concrete evidence that the tide is turning and that FGM/C is becoming less popular in some villages. "I started seeing the real effects of our work in the villages when a daya- midwife- from the village of El-Nekheila told me: 'I want a financial compensation from you since I used to make 2000 pounds every summer and now only one or two families come up to me to circumcise their daughters. You have ruined my business.' This really showed me the powerful effect we were having on the communities we work in and it made me proud to be participating in this initiative."