Initiatives to encourage communities in Africa to abandon female genital mutilation or cutting are more effective when used to reinforce the positive aspects of local cultures and build trust by implementing development projects, the findings of a United Nations study released today show.
“Rather than ‘fighting’ against local culture and presenting traditional behaviours as negative, effective programmes propose alternative mechanisms to signal adherence to shared community values and to frame the discussion surrounding FGM in a non-threatening way,” it states.
Entitled “The Dynamics of Social Change: Towards the Abandonment of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Five African Countries,” the study was prepared by the Innocenti Research Centre, located in the Italian city of Florence, of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“A family’s decision to practice or abandon FGM/C is influenced by powerful social rewards and sanctions,” said Gordon Alexander, interim director of the Centre.
“Understanding the diverse social dynamics that perpetuate FGM/C is changing the way in which abandonment is approached. There is no one answer, no one way, and no quick fix. But there is progress. These efforts need to be scaled up to bring change in the lives of girls, now,” he says in the report.
FGM/C is the partial or total removal of the external genitalia – undertaken for cultural or other non-medical reasons – often causing severe pain and sometimes resulting in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death.
Communities that practise it consider FGM/C a necessary step to raise girls and, in many cases, to make them eligible for marriage. Failure to carry out or undergo FGM/C can lead to social exclusion and disapproval not only of the girl but of the entire family.
The study stresses that successful abandonment programmes involve respected community members, including religious and local leaders, and engage social networks and institutions. The programmes also use legislative reform, national policies and the media to facilitate and support the process.
The report examines strategies that are supporting communities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal and the Sudan to abandon the practice.
It found that progress has been made, especially in Senegal, but national FGM/C prevalence rates still remain high in Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. Significant change in attitudes about FGM/C in the three countries, however, indicate that individuals are questioning the merits of these practices and would prefer, circumstances permitting, not to have their daughters, wives, sisters and other relative undergo FGM/C.
Estimates on how many girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation vary from 70 million to 140 million.
In Africa, an estimated three million girls and women are at risk for FGM/C each year. The practice is also found in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and to a lesser extent within some immigrant communities in Europe, and in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.