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Female Genital Cutting: How To Fight and How Not To Fight Against It

November 7, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

Female genital cutting (FGC) and the efforts to abolish such a practice have stirred much debate in the international arena: on one side, the practice is considered inhumane by international (see Western) actors and therefore to be abolished on the base of a human rights approach; on the other side it is defended by local constituencies as a cultural practice which serves a specific social function within the community and therefore cannot be so simply abolished. A new video from the NYT documents the dramatic progress that the grassroots organization Tostan in Senegal has achieved in the fight against female genital cutting. The video sheds light on some of the key factors that led to Tostan’s success but it also avoids to portray such practices as a legacy of the past whose use today is based on the “belief” that external genitalia must be cut for the girl to be marriageable. To brand FGC as tradition and to sideline the social function which it plays within the community is in fact tantamount to misunderstanding the topic and therefore likely to produce resistance from the local community.

In what follows, I want to highlight through a case study from Kenya in colonial times why a top down approach which focus on the abandonment of an “irrational” and “barbaric” practice can foster resistance by the local community. Secondly, I will point out other factors which made the message spread by Tostan in Senegal more acceptable  i.e. its bottom up approach and its effort to win the trust of the communities in which it works before discussing the risks associated with FGC.

In 1920s Kenya Protestant missionaries actively campaigned against the practice of female genital cutting because it was considered morally repugnant. The efforts from the clergy to prevent young girls to be subjected to clitoridectomy  and to lobby local authorities to pass laws that would ban the practice was met with fierce resistance by the local population. Ultimately such resistance led to the desertion of Christian churches and the foundation of independent churches and schools by the local Kikuyu communities. So why was the missionaries proposal so fiercely fought despite the fact that the Christian missions had a strong hold on the community? The answer lies in the fact that a woman who is not circumcised is not marriageable. Without marriage there would be no payment of the dowry to the family of the bride from the family of the groom. Such exchange creates a bond of reciprocity and solidarity between the families and therefore any attempts to abolish the foundational practice of FGC was perceived as an attempt to dissolve the social networks which kept together the Kikuyu society.

Contrary to the accusatory  and confrontational approach taken by missionaries in Kenya, Tostan aims to gain the trust of the communities by implementing basic education programs. Tostan introduces the communities to a training which covers a variety of topics ranging from child health to negotiation skills and promotes the participation of men as well. By doing so, Tostan earns the reputation amongst participants to provide accurate and beneficial information. When the topic of FGC is debated the community is more willing to listen how such practices can be harmful to girls. In other words Tostan adopts a multidimensional approach which aims to tackle a variety of challenges affecting the community. Such an approach is likely to perceived as more trustworthy as opposed to a single-issue approach whereby the intervention (i.e. abolish FGC) is imposed from above (see the case of vaccinations discussed in another post).

In sum, as Elyzabeth Boyle notices in her book about female genital cutting, national policies about cultural practice such as FGC are driven as much as by global institutionalized principles as by local constituencies. In order for cultural practices such FGC to be changed the former does not have to appear to prevaricate over the second. The case of Kenya illustrates what are the consequences when this happens. Conversely, the case of Tostan in Senegal shows how a balance of the two forces can stimulate change from within rather than from above. When local constituencies are taken on board the shift in cultural practices can be dramatic.

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