The role of community conversations in empowering communities to challenge FGM

Kunka Kebele, Gode Woreda, Somali Region

Martha Tadesse
Kunka Kebele women dancing before their Community Conversation, Gode, Somali region
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
30 September 2019

Somali Women of Kunka Kebele dance with traditional music as they gather for their regular community conversations, prior to the actual dialogue where they discuss Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and other harmful practices (HPs). A community conversation comprises 40-50 women and men community members, including a kebele administrator, a clan leader, a community police officer, a school director, a former circumciser, a religious leader and a kebele women association chair. The conversation takes place bi-monthly for two to three hours.  

Ifrah Ali and Muktar Bashir were trained as facilitators of community conversations in 2016. Ifrah remembers the time she started leading the dialogues in the community, “It was hard to convince the community because of the strong belief that cutting girls is considered as a required religious practice. Some people used to mock me. Over the years, I have seen a tremendous change in the community, and I am proud of the results we achieved. Those who used to mock our discussions are now openly discussing their experiences.” 

Muktar further explains, “The change is tangible. Most of the community now stands with us and exposes families that plan to practice FGM.” 

Kunka Kebele during Community Conversation with Facilitator, Muktar Bashir, Gode, Somali Region
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
Kunka Kebele during Community Conversation with Facilitator, Muktar Bashir, Gode, Somali Region

This programme is implemented in Afar and Somali regions of Ethiopia with the financial support of the UNICEF Luxembourg National Committee on accelerating action to end FGM. In Somali region, it is currently implemented in 64 kebeles (sub-districts} across eight woredas (districts) (Gode, Danan, Kabridahar, Shaygosh, Wardher, Daratole, Fik and Hamaro woredas.  

Harmful practices are among a number of child protection issues in the Somali region. Amongst girls and women aged 15-49 years old, the prevalence of FGM in the region is 98.5 per cent (2016 EDHS), the highest in Ethiopia. It is also one of the two regions where infibulation, the worst form of FGM, is highly practiced (infibulation involves the vaginal opening being partially sewn shut in addition to the removal of flesh). The region is also the one that needs the biggest acceleration of efforts and results: compared to progress over the last 10 years for the younger age group 15-19 years old, progress will need to be 76 times faster to eliminate FGM by 2030, target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, the prevalence of child marriage in the region is at a high 49.4 per cent for the age group 20-24, showing that 1 out of 2 girls are married as children, against a national prevalence of 40 per cent.  

Key factors driving the practice of child marriage and FGM practices include patriarchal attitudes and values attached to girls and women; the desire to control women’s sexuality and decision-making power and keeping virginity/purity of girls until the first marriage; and the socio-economic subordination of women.1 A strong correlation exists between social and gender norms and practices of FGM and child marriage, whereby such practices are deeply rooted in traditional values. Recurrent emergencies and widespread poverty can also exacerbate such practices. In addition, physical and sexual violence against girls and women is taking place across the region, yet the level of reporting to law enforcement institutions is low. 

Dahab Hashi, Kebele Adminstrator leads a discussion on Community Conversation at Kunka Kebele, Gode, Somali Region
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
Dahab Hashi, Kebele Adminstrator leads a discussion on Community Conversation at Kunka Kebele, Gode, Somali Region

Dehab Hashi, the Kunka Kebele women association chair, reflects on her community’s past understanding of FGM saying, “We cut our children because our mothers did the same. It was considered as a culture and a religious duty. We never questioned why women and girls had to go through all the pain they went through, whether as pregnant teen girls or as mothers who experienced prolonged labour. It is as if we were sitting in the dark for so long. Most of our community is now aware of the consequences and religious leaders are challenging the practices, which has facilitated the change.”  

UNICEF, in collaboration with the Regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth (BoWCY), Regional Attorney General (RAG) and Regional Bureau of Education (BoE), is working to address harmful practices using a combination of strategies such as capacity building of the formal and non-formal workforces (such as legal professionals, experts from regional and woreda levels BOWCY, teachers, community conversations facilitators, members of Anti-Harmful Traditional Practices Committees), prevention and response service delivery, and social mobilization interventions aimed at bringing social norms change at the community level. Community conversations is a key approach employed with the help of Civil Society Organizations and Faith Based Organizations to engage communities and encourage the collective abandonment of FGM and child marriage. 

Mohammod Abdi, a local resident and community conversation member, explains that these dialogues have helped him understand the consequences of FGM. He states, “I have been a part of these conversations for the past three years, which has been eye-opening. This is where I learned about the complications girls and women face due to FGM. It never occurred to me as a problem because everybody practiced it in my community and we were not aware that the complications faced by women and girls are the results of FGM. I am not going to cut my daughters. Not only that, but I will expose families if I find that they are planning to practice FGM, I know better now.”  

Community conversations engage religious leaders in the woreda to discuss about the Islamic perspective of the consequences of FGM, ‘do no harm’ principles and the provisions or teachings related to the protection of girls and women from violence and harm.  

Sheikh Mohammod Abdulah from the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (a local Faith-based Organisation) explains that these community conversations have helped community members to raise their fears, doubts and questions by saying, 

“Our position plays a great role in facilitating these conversations and communicating with the community that FGM has no religious base. It can be difficult to change people’s beliefs, especially religious ones, but looking back, I can happily say that community conversations are among the greatest strategies that have helped us to enable our community critically reflect on the wrong beliefs which perpetuate the practice and challenge the practice for the better."

Ifrah Ibrahim, Gode Woreda Women, Children and Youth (WoWCY) bureau head, also adds that “involving religious leaders and ex-circumcisers has helped a lot in changing the community’s perception. It would have been more difficult otherwise.” Nimo Hussen, a former circumciser and community conversation group member, asserts that the dialogues have made her a well-known speaker against FGM in the community. She states, “I learned circumcising girls from my mother. I circumcised girls for over 10 years. After learning about the problems of FGM, I felt ashamed for having circumcised girls, really. I put my hands on the Quran and swore that I will never touch girls. I am now advocating along with religious leaders and kebele administrators. I am always happy to share my past experience and teach not only my generation but also the young ones. I speak during community conversations and also at school events. I have been circumcising for a long time, but now I shall stand against FGM and speak loud until my last days of my life.” 

Even though there is notable progress in Kunka Kebele in decreasing FGM, Ifrah Ibrahim shares the persistent challenges in implementing the program by saying, “We do believe that we have made a great achievement in the past few years. However, because the programme is implemented in a few kebeles, some community members travel to the rural areas to practice FGM, a situation that can be very hard to control unless the other kebeles are also included in our programme. We hope that the scope of the programme be can broaden and continue working towards making FGM a history in our woreda.”