Celebrating the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

by Amref Health Africa

You’re obviously very passionate about the rights of women and girls, and eradication of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Why is this a personal cause for you
I am very passionate about ending FGM/C because it is a violation of human rights. It infringes on the health and dignity of women and girls and ultimately impacts their ability to further their education and contribute toward socio-economic development.

How has your work with at-risk girls and women influenced your approach to protecting and empowering them?
At the Centre of Excellence, we have developed strategies that directly involve community members, religious leaders, cultural gate keepers, men and boys as well as women and girls. We know that for the protection of girls and women at risk, we need to have full community buy-in and participation, and one way of doing this is by involving all stakeholders in efforts to end the practice – from the grassroots levels to the policy and legislative level.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected efforts to eradicate FGM in East Africa?
COVID-19 has increased the vulnerability of women and girls to harmful practices especially FGM/C and Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM). This is because the disease transmission control measures resulted in school closures, forcing school-going girls to stay home for long periods of time. The stay at home orders also resulted in families losing their livelihoods, endangering young girls who are traditionally viewed as a source of income when sold into early/forced marriage.

In 2020 we conducted research on the effect of the pandemic on FGM/C and CEFM. Our research revealed that before COVID-19, majority of the respondents perceived that cases of FGM/C (63%; p<0.001) and CEFM (62%; p<0.001) were decreasing in the Kenyans counties of Kajiado, Samburu and Marsabit. In contrast, during COVID-19, most of the study respondents perceived that the pandemic had led to an increase in both FGM/C (55%; p<0.001) and CEFM (64%; p<0.001) cases.

What interventions is Amref, together with partners, putting in place to protect at-risk girls and young women from this harmful practice?
Amref has implemented interventions geared towards social and gender norms transformation within practicing communities, utilizing community-led approaches such as dialogue, engaging men and boys and Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP). ARP endeavors to end FGM/C by taking away the cut and providing an alternative symbolic rite of passage, while retaining important parts of the initiation such as sex and reproductive health education and blessings from community elders.

Amref is also a founding partner of the Global Platform for Action to End FGM/C, and takes leadership in global, regional, national and subnational advocacy and lobbying on laws and policies to end the practice. Over the years we have engaged with religious and cultural leaders and community gate keepers to change attitudes, norms and behaviors in the Kenyan counties of Marsabit, Samburu and Kajiado, where the prevalence of FGM/C and CEFM are relatively high.

Have there been any significant successes recorded so far?
The community-led ARP initiative has achieved significant success as evidenced by a recent ARP impact study we conducted. The study measured the impact of a 10-year program implemented by Amref in Kajiado County, Kenya. It revealed that the Community-Led Alternative Rights of Passage (CL-ARP) model had significantly contributed to a 24-point decrease in FGM/C prevalence, down from 80.8% before ARP rollout in 2009 to 56.6% in 2019; a 4.9-point decline in child marriage rates from 1.2% to minus 6.1% (equivalent to a four-fold reduction); and an increase of 2.5 schooling years from 3.1 to 5.6 years in Kajiado between 2009 and 2019.

In addition, Amref has implemented End FGM/C programs with partners in North-Eastern Kenya to tackle common drivers of FGM/C. One project for example involved working with religious and traditional leaders, youth champions of all genders, mothers and daughters in 40 communities, resulting in successful public and community declarations against FGM/C.

What challenges stand in the way of eradicating this practice?
The entrenchment of FGM/C within the traditions and cultures of practicing communities makes it difficult to eradicate, because communities want to preserve their cultures – inclusive of once widely accepted practices that are now considered harmful. That is why it is important to have community-led programs, where communities have a sense of ownership and are encouraged to drive change themselves.

Another challenge is the emerging trends resulting from unintended consequences of some approaches to ending FGM/C. These include the public health and legal approaches that have led to medicalization of the practice and increased fear of prosecution, which has driven the practice underground.

In addition, the impact of socio-economic and ecological challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and other humanitarian emergencies on women and girls, has resulted in the re-emergence of the practice and widening gender of inequalities, putting more young women and girls at risk of FGM/C.

What political, community and multi-sectoral actions can be taken in the near- and long-term to eradicate FGM?
Amref is engaging with governments to support the enactment of laws and policies that protect young women and girls from FGM/C and CEFM and their associated risks. We also encourage multi-sectoral collaboration for the development and delivery of programs that support accountability frameworks designed to end FGM/C in the region.

How is Amref working to reintegrate survivors of FGM/C back into their communities?
In Kenya for example, the Centre of Excellence supports the Nice Place Foundation, which is a safe house and leadership and development centre for at-risk girls and survivors. We are working with communities to create safe environments for survivors of FGM/C to return to without fear of retribution or ridicule. We are also supporting and empowering young girls to know and understand their rights by carrying out sensitization programs within the communities we operate in.

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