Winning hearts and minds for the abandonment of FGM/C
In a small village on the Senegal-Gambia border, Maryam D. and her friends have a unique chance to break with tradition and make history. They have the opportunity to be the first generation of Senegalese women to say no to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), a centuries-old practice that causes extreme pain and suffering in children.
Maryam belongs to the Mandingue ethnicity, which has the highest FGM/C rate of women cut in Senegal. In her community, the practice is thought to be part of the culture and essential for purity and marriageability. “A woman who is not cut, is not pure,” said the Chief of a small village near Kolda.
However, despite traditional beliefs, Maryam is not yet convinced that she should cut her own child. “I know that this is part of our culture, but I’ve heard there are risks involved,” she said.
It is within this increasing uncertainty, that UNICEF, the Senegalese government and civil society’s campaign to win hearts and minds is unfolding throughout the country.
Declaration and diffusion
Through the support provided for implementation of the National Action Plan to accelerate FGM/C abandonment through the government and civil society, particularly Tostan, a NGO dedicated to facilitating community dialogue and promote human rights education, UNICEF has supported over 5,800 communities throughout Senegal to declare the abandonment of the practice of FGM/C.
Through an approach based on human rights education including democracy, health, children and women’s rights, the community-based programme has managed to overturn centuries of brutal tradition, a violation of girls and women’s human rights according to the World Health Organisation.
“At first, women who were not cut were not considered normal, but then we started to connect the health problems with FGM/C, and that’s when we decided to stop the practice. Since we declared, till right now, no child has been cut,” said Fatoumata B. from a small village just outside Kolda.
“The Community Empowerment Programme is a non-formal education programme that empowers communities to improve their own lives by making informed decisions based on an understanding of human rights and health. Community members then draw their own conclusions on about FGM and lead their own movements for change,” said a community facilitator from Tostan.
Whilst at the beginning in 1998 there were just thirteen participating villages, by 2005 the number had grown to 1,486 and the movement accelerated over the following years. To date 5,822 villages have participated in public declarations of commitment to end the practice.
Pockets of resistance
Whilst the movement of abandonment of FGM/C was able to mobilise different segments of the population as well as key civil society actors, namely religious leaders, youth, health and legal services, it is long from over as there are yet certain pockets of resistance. The social movement for the abandonment still needs to reach at least three hundred communities in Senegal, which continue to practice FGM/C in spite of the law prohibiting the practice voted in 1999 by parliament.
The leaders of these resistance villages believe that FGM/C has been described in the Qur’an and ingrained into their culture and tradition. For them, god is greater than the law.
“It’s true that the law was voted in by people, but people are creations of god, why should I be scared of people. I should have more fear of god,” said a village head.
In partnership with progressive Imams and scholars,UNICEF has supported the development of an Islamic argumentation on FGM/C including communication tools for Imams and preachers. “The argumentation comes to the conclusion that there are no citations of FGM/C in the Qur’an containing evidence that could justify an Islamic provision on this harmful practice. Islam has been misused as a justification which has its roots in certain social norms”, said a respected Imam in Dakar. Thanks to this argumentation Imams will be able to respond to key questions on this practice with the goal of promoting the integrity of women and girls.
Around 140 million women throughout Africa have been victims of FGM/C according to the WHO. In Senegal, the latest Demographic Health Survey/MICS found that 26 per cent of the women have been cut nationally, however this prevalence reaches peak of 90% among resistance groups. This data, together with a lack of implementation of the law, show that challenges remain.
UNICEF continues to support the National Action Plan for the Acceleration of FGM/C Abandonment and its ambitious goal of total abandonment through promoting its multi-sectorial strategy. This strategy includes strengthening the legislative component, the community-based work towards a scaled-up social movement of abandonment of the practice, partnership with supportive religious leaders, and a stronger collaboration with local health services.
UNICEF hopes that this mix of strategies and approaches, including the human rights approach used by Tostan and other partners, will help women understand their rights. “This is essential as only 25 % women are literate,” said the child protection specialist at UNICEF.
Through increasing awareness and government advocacy to enforce the law, the support of the religious and medical argumentation UNICEF hopes to give Maryam and her generation the chance to stop FGM/C in its tracks.