Men using their voice to end Female Genital Mutilation
Activists and local promoters are raising the debate in communities and amplifying all voices to demand an end to FGM and harmful practices in Guinea-Bissau
"The men here defend the women," says Maria Augusta Correia with conviction. At 58, Maria is the head of the women's group in the community of Cabaceira, in Tombali, southern Guinea-Bissau, and an advisor to all her companions. She believes that without the support of men, the community, also known as "tabanca", would not have been able to put an end to the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM).
She herself was protected from this harm by her father, who was against FGM even when the practice was so common in this region of the country. It is estimated that in Guinea-Bissau 52% of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to female genital mutilation. "I didn't do it because my father didn't accept it," explains Maria Augusta, with a smile.
To defend women and girls, the National Committee for the Abandonment of Harmful Practices in Guinea-Bissau, under the supervision of the Government of Guinea-Bissau, works closely with the tabancas, with the support of regional non-governmental organizations (NGO). After receiving training from NGO activists, community promoters go to the most remote and hard-to-reach areas of the country to take messages to their neighbors about children's and women's rights and call for an end to female genital mutilation, child marriage, violence against children and gender-based violence.
When they visit communities, the activists and promoters make sure they talk to the head of the tabanca, the traditional leader of the community, and all the men. Djulde Bari, 51, head of the Sintcha Serifo tabanca in Quebo, Tombali region, understands why. "Men have a voice. What I decide in my house is heard," she says. "If a man decides he doesn't want something, it stops happening," Djulde adds firmly.
"Men have a voice. What I decide in my house is enforced”
When the National Committee for the Abandonment of Harmful Practices sees that the community is ready to take a step forward, the community signs a commitment and officially declares the end of harmful practices in that village. This, after at least two years of frequent dialogue with local promoters and activists and awareness campaigns.
Sintcha Serifo tabanca declared an end to harmful practices in 2021. Chief Djulde says that the process took a long time, because "it's not easy to change behaviors. "Many adults resisted at first, but as head of the tabanca, I talked to them and influenced the change," he explains confidently.
"What made us do it was the lack of information," says Djulde. Now everyone in the tabanca knows that "women who have been excised have health problems, especially during childbirth, they can lose their lives, get infections and when they have sex they don't have pleasure," he adds. Talks with local promoters over the last few years "have been very good for us", adds the community leader.
The imam is also an obligatory presence in the conversation sessions with the community promoters. In Guinea-Bissau, FGM occurs often in communities that identify themselves as Muslim. Because of their power of influence in the tabanca, these religious leaders need to understand the consequences of FGM and other forms of gender-based violence.
In the Sintcha Serifo tabanca, Imam Mamadu Baldé supported the declaration to end harmful practices. He understands that "from the Prophet's side, female genital mutilation is not obligatory," he explains calmly. "When something it's not good for your health, it's better to stop it," concludes the imam.
The head of the Cabaceira tabanca, Abduramane Baldé, agrees. In this tabanca, where Maria Augusta also lives, the community is mostly Muslim and now knows that excision has no religious basis. "It has nothing to do with the Koran, but it's a traditional issue," says Abduramane. "There's no other reason."
The National Committee for the Abandonment of Harmful Practices has the support and funding of the Joint Program for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation in Guinea-Bissau, implemented by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
This Joint Program for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation operates in 17 countries (Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda and Yemen) and seeks to respond to the multidimensional causes and consequences of this practice.
In Guinea-Bissau, the main causes for the prevalence of this harmful practice seem to be discrimination and stigma, weak national infrastructures, poverty, the population's vulnerability to shocks and crises, and barriers to women's active participation in decision-making. The Bissau-Guinean government enacted a law against female genital mutilation in 2011 and, in 2018, adopted a national policy for its eradication and a national program. These efforts have resulted in a progressive but slow reduction in the number of cases.
As such, the UNICEF and UNFPA Joint Programme has focused on involving and mobilizing men and boys to transform social and gender norms. This is because experience has shown that the support of men is essential to defend the rights of women and children and put an end to female genital mutilation. Dauda Só is an example of this. He says that he didn't allow his sisters to undergo female genital mutilation, even though it was against their parents' wishes. "I already knew it was bad," says Dauda.
Dauda has always believed that women are complete as God made them and don't need to suffer any excision. Years later, Dauda married a woman who had also not been a victim of this practice and began to protect her daughter and the other girls in the Cabaceira tabanca from it.
Without her husband's support, Cadi Dabo doesn't know how she could protect her daughters. While listening to people discuss the dangers of female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and domestic violence, she braids her youngest daughter’s hair. She takes the 5-year-old girl to the meetings with the activists so that she can learn about her rights from an early age. For Cadi, it's important to talk about this.
“I was a victim of female genital mutilation and child marriage because I didn't know anything about it, but my daughters won't be”, says the 22-year-old.
Cadi says that her life hasn't been easy, but she's happy to see that mentality and behavior in the tabanca are changing. " There are many things we don't do anymore", such as female genital mutilation, says Cadi. The promoters have been talking to the people in her tabanca, in Gã Banna, Quinara region, for about a year. If this continues, the public declaration of the end of harmful practices should take place in 2024. From then on, local promoters and NGO activists will continue to work with the community to ensure that they don't go back on their commitment.
Famata lives in Barrio Areia Nalu, a tabanca in Catió, in the Tombali region, which declared an end to harmful practices in 2021. She says that in the tabanca there is "no difference between girls and boys" and, for example, all the girls go to school. She is now in 12th grade and wants to be a kindergarten teacher. She does want to get married, but only when she has finished her studies. For now, she wants to stay in her community and look after the rights of her friends and companions.