Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Norms that hurt: communities abandoning FGM

This post is written by Charlotte Highmore, a junior policy analyst for the OECD and the Secretariat of the DAC Network on Gender Equality (GENDERNET). It discusses female genital mutilation (FGM) and the progress made thus far, in honor of the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. This blog is a part of the Wikichild series on FGM/C.
Worldwide there are 140 million women and girls currently living with the irreversible physical and emotional trauma affects caused by female genital mutilation (FGM). Each year, a further three million girls endure the practice.

According to the World Health Organization, FGM involves the full or partial removal of the female genitalia, performed most frequently by untrained traditional practitioners. In approximately 15 per cent of all global cases this involves fully sewing the female genitalia closed. There are no health benefits for women and girls. When “cutters” without medical training perform FGM the procedure is often carried out without anaesthetic or sterilisation. Unsurprisingly, many girls die through shock from the pain, trauma or excessive bleeding.

A Deep Rooted Social Norm

This begs the question - why do it? FGM is a deeply rooted social norm enforced by community expectations around women and girls. As with the type of mutilation practised, the reasons why FGM is done depends on the context. For some it is linked with the idea of cleanliness. For others, it is about enhancing beauty or upholding religion. It is worth noting though that FGM is not prescribed by any of the major religions or supported by any religious texts. Most frequently, FGM is about controlling women’s sexuality – for example, preserving a girl’s virginity or stopping “promiscuous” behaviour.

What is apparent through all the different rationalisations is that FGM is considered a necessary part of raising a woman and girl properly. To opt out is to risk girls being rejected from the community or never being able to find a husband, which for many outweighs any health risks – including the possibility of death.

Progress is Being Made

The reality that FGM violates women’s and girls’ rights and perpetuates gender inequality is gaining momentum and progress is being achieved. In 2003, the 6th February was announced as the International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. This was followed in 2012 with a UN General Assembly resolution that condemned harmful practices to women and girls, in particular FGM. Currently 24 African nations where FGM is practiced have prohibited the practice by law or constitutional decree.

However – while important – legislative change, UN resolutions, or one individual acting alone cannot shift entrenched social norms. What is needed is for the entire community to work together to decide to abandon the practice.

NGOs such as Tostan and the UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme “Accelerating Change” have proven just how effective this approach can be. These organisations focus on working directly with local communities, including traditional and religious leaders, to enable them to reflect critically on the practice and make a collective choice to publically abandon FGM. Merely condemning the practice can risk creating hostility and driving it underground.

The results speak for themselves. Tostan and UNFPA-UNICEF’s work combined has reached over 18,000 communities in 15 countries; representing over 8 million people that have renounced FGM.

What Next?

By engaging with communities and enabling them to lead their own movements for change, entrenched social norms can and are starting to shift. We need to build on this momentum and ensure that resources reach organisations that are connected to communities and are able and willing to engage over the long-term to bring about the deeper, more systemic change needed. We can also learn from these best practices and apply them to other demanding gender equality issues such as early marriage, violence against women, and women’s inheritance and land rights. Positive social transformation is possible but it needs to come “from the ground up”.

See also
FGM: the Dynamics of Change
International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting 2013
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change

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