Five communities pledge an end to female genital mutilation and cutting
By Samira Ahmed, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist.
6 February 2009, Rahad District, Gedaref State. Eight years ago, only a few rural communities in three states in the north of Sudan were actively engaged in efforts to end the harmful practice of female genital mutilation and cutting. By 2006, when surveys showed that nearly 70 per cent of girls and women of child-bearing age in the north of Sudan were affected by the practice, 42 communities in six states - Kassala, Gedaref, North Kordofan, South Kordofan, North Darfur, South Darfur and Khartoum – had become involved in a growing campaign to abandon FGM/C.
Some 300,000 people were involved in awareness-raising and public information activities led by the Sudan National Council for Child Welfare, and supported by UNICEF, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups, with the ultimate objective of seeing whole communities make a public commitment to ending FGM/C.
Gedaref State was the first state where communities made such a declaration, with five communities in the Rahad area pledging to bring an end to FGM/C in 2006. Made up of different tribal groups, These communities showed that the commitment to end FGM/C could be inclusive, with no limitations on who could speak out to abandon a practice known to be fatal to many girls and women.these communities showed that the commitment to end FGM/C could be inclusive, with no limitations on who could speak out to abandon a practice known to be fatal to many girls and women, and has serious health implications for those who survive.
The task of bringing community members in Gedaref together to discuss the risks of FGM/C fell to a Sudanese NGO - Rapid Operational Care and Scientific Services (ROCSS). ROCSS was supported by UNICEF to develop a community based learning programme that focused on non-formal literacy education and understanding of human rights, empowering women, men and young people to demonstrate local leadership on a range of issues including the abandonment of FGM/C. Basing its approach on evidence gathered locally, ROCSS was able to show that in some of the five communities the incidence of FGM/C was as high as 99 per cent, combined with high maternal mortality rates, a lack of basic services including healthcare, electricity, water and sanitation and education, poor roads and limited accessibility during the annual rainy seasons – all factors that could combine with FGM/C to increase risks to girls’ and women’s health.
The campaign in the Gedaref communities began with public meetings, outlining the partnership between the community and ROCSS, the State Ministry of Social and Cultural Affairs and another government body, the Child Friendly Community Initiative (CFCI) which had been working across the north of Sudan to support community-led development.
Through these initial contacts, villagers elected their own development committee that would oversee activities to meet the needs of the community and liaise with service providers. Initial focus was placed on specific needs of young people, and developing centres within each community for implementing the new learning programmes. Over time, these community centres became meeting places for non-formal education and community mobilization events, as well as providing a workspace for women to start income-generating activities.
A team of trainers was established from amongst key members of the community – including women, imams and community leaders – who would lead awareness-raising and educational activities in each village. Through support from ROCSS, each team member was equipped with skills in identifying and mapping community needs, promoting improved nutrition, health and education, and advocating on human rights, including the specific rights of children. This latter aspect of their work included advocacy on gender-related issues and FGM/C.
Since 2006, 42 community facilitators in the five communities have undertaken this “training of trainers”, and 350 villagers have taken part in a nine month participatory course, graduating with sound reading and writing skills, improved knowledge of human rights and in turn have organized events and activities to promote the concept of ‘collective abandonment’ of FGM/C in their communities .
Collective abandonment provides an opportunity for whole communities, or clusters of communities, to publicly declare that their community will no longer practice FGM/C.Collective abandonment provides an opportunity for whole communities, or clusters of communities, to publicly declare that their community will no longer practice FGM/C, helping to increase support through peer persuasion and advocacy. It also allows people to effectively speak out on an issue long considered highly sensitive, and be recognized for their commitment to abandonment, while not drawing attention or creating stigma to those still practicing FGM/C.
In the Gedaref villages, the local committees organized a range of events to bring the community together to raise awareness on FGM/C. These included football competitions, music and drama, festivals, open dialogue between older and young people to influence public opinion regarding the rights of girls to be uncut, community radio programmes encouraging abandonment of FGM/C, and presentation of awards to families who had publicly declared their abandonment of the practice.
In March 2008, all five villages came together to announce their collective abandonment of female genital mutilation and cutting. In a celebration attended by senior government officials and a thousand local residents, the communities publicly pledged to abandon the practice in their respective communities and among their families.
The pledge itself was signed by representatives of each community and government officials, and this year will be re-presented to each community to collect signatures from new families.
But the work does not end at collecting signatures. The communities have also established monitoring committees to report on just how effective the public commitment to abandon FGM/C has actually been.
First indications are promising – since 2006, the committees have reported that 500 girls aged between five and eleven years old have been saved from the practice that three years ago could have cost them their lives.