Five years ago, over 3 million girls were at risk of undergoing female genital cutting, a process that involves the partial or complete removal of a girl’s external genitals. And yet back then, too few people were talking about it or even realized it was an issue: “I don’t think people really understand it exists,” said Kathy Calvin from the United Nations Foundation.
She was speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. As the winner of the 2010 Davos Debate – a competition that offered members of the public the chance to go to Davos and advocate for an urgent human rights cause – I was on that panel with her. I had one goal at that meeting: to bring the issue into the mainstream. “Issues like female genital mutilation can’t stay on the margins; they have to be debated at the highest levels,” I told a journalist at the time.
The progress we’ve made in such a short space of time is really quite incredible, and we’ve seen a tidal wave of change sweep across West Africa. In September 2015, FGC was even confirmed as part of the 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development: Goal 5 of achieving gender equality by 2030 has as a target the “elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation”.
But this progress should not blind us to the work that is still to be done. While more people might now be aware of the issue – and many leaders, from the UK to Somalia, have pledged to crack down on the practice – 3 million girls are still at risk every year. So what methods for ending this harmful practice have been shown to work?
A simple solution to ending FGC
The key to ending FGC is so simple, it’s extraordinary: talking. By encouraging communities to talk about the issue among themselves, we can pick apart the social norms that make this practice acceptable, even expected.
Every society has social norms. For example, in some countries, it is customary to leave a tip at a restaurant to recognize good service. Those who don’t follow these social norms are normally punished in some way, perhaps by being shunned by those around them. Many of these social norms are useful. But FGC is a social norm that is highly damaging to girls’ and women’s physical and mental health. It performs no useful social function at all.
Unfortunately, some of these social norms are so deeply entrenched that even changes to the law don’t affect how people behave. This is the case with FGC, and that makes it almost impossible – even when the practice is outlawed – for people in some communities not to cut their daughter. A few manage it, but they face extreme sanctions from their peers. They’ll find that no-one wants to associate with their uncut daughter, and she will not be able to get married. My organization has even heard of a case where a man was killed by the community for refusing to have his daughter cut.
The most effective programmes to end FGC recognize just how powerful these social norms are, and work with communities to help change them.
Breaking social norms
The pioneer of this approach is our partner organization, Tostan, which means “Breakthrough” in the Senegalese Wolof language.
They don’t go into communities and tell people to stop cutting. The community would refuse to speak about something so personal. And you can’t discuss the issue in isolation, because it’s only one of a number of connected issues. Instead, projects must encourage community members to discuss human rights, wellbeing and gender equality before FGC can be raised.
To do so, Tostan work with communities over a period of 30 months, helping participants learn about their rights to health and to be free from all forms of violence. Rather than blaming or criticizing members of the community, the facilitators encourage dialogue on harmful practices like FGC.
Once communities start to think about human rights and gender issues more broadly, they are able to see for themselves why FGC is a harmful social norm. But like all social norms, they have the power to abandon it.
The data to back it up
The staff at Tostan see these remarkable changes every day: entire communities turning their back on what was once an accepted practice. In Senegal, I saw the outcome of their work with my own eyes: 52 communities publicly declared that they will never again cut their daughters.
It’s not just anecdotal evidence that shows this approach works. We have data, too. So far, Tostan’s work has led to 7,375 communities abandoning FGC, and the programme has been cited as best practice in UNICEF’s rigorous evaluation of work to end FGC. The UNICEF and UNFPA Joint Program to end FGC also supports this approach, and has now helped over 13,000 communities in Africa, Iraq and Yemen abandon the practice.
A way forward
If we’re going to end FGC, we need to look more widely. The practice takes place in at least 15 countries across the Middle East and Asia, including Malaysia, Singapore, Iran and Indonesia. We have very little data on the extent of the issue in these countries. Indonesia alone has a population of over 200 million, and small-scale surveys have shown that 86% to 100% of girls have been cut.
What we do know, though, is that many communities in these countries justify cutting as something that is supported by Islam. This is not the case: there are strong arguments against FGC within Islam, and the practice is not even mentioned in the Qu’ran. But to make the same progress in these countries as has been made in other places, programmes will have to tackle both social and religious norms to dispel these myths. It won’t be easy, but all our work so far suggests it can be done.
I’m pleased that ending FGC is a target in the UN’s Global Goals. Now we need to see this level of commitment translated into action across international, national and regional stakeholders. But most important of all, we need action at the community level to allow abandonment to continue to spread.
The Global Gender Gap Report 2015 was published on 19 November.
Author: Julia Lalla-Maharajh is CEO and Founder of Orchid Project