By Dr Githinji Gitahi
At least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in 30 different countries, according to UNICEF. Behind these statistics are the harrowing stories of countless women and girls who have endured tremendous suffering, often silently, because of FGM/C.
The cut causes serious medical complications, such as extreme pain, excessive bleeding, wound infection, maternal and newborn complications, and sometimes death. In many cultures where FGM/C is practiced, it is also directly linked to marriageability and is typically carried out on young girls below the age of 15 to make them eligible brides.
This not only promotes early child marriages, but also increases school dropout rates for girls. FGM/C therefore perpetuates the vicious cycle of gender inequality that the world is fighting to end by 2030 through Sustainable Development Goal 5 (achieve global equality and empower all women and girls).
It is against this backdrop that the United Nations declared 6 February as the annual observance date for the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The year’s commemoration marks six years since the first declaration in 2012.
Over these six years, sustained advocacy by a cross-section of donors, development agencies, NGOs and governments has helped raised global awareness about the negative effects of FGM/C.
Thanks to this awareness, FGM/C is now criminalized in most countries around the world. Perpetrators risk significant jail time, including life imprisonment in Kenya, Uganda and Guinea, just to name a few countries.
However, criminalization of FGM/C has still not translated into any significant prosecutions and convictions. Even in the U.K., which has a criminal justice system that is highly protective of women’s rights, there is yet to be a single conviction, despite FGM/C being criminalized in 1985 and the U.K. government estimating that 170,000 women and girls there have undergone the harmful procedure.
Though it has raised much-needed awareness, criminalization has not deterred the practice of FGM/C. UNICEF notes that if current trends continue, the number of girls and women subjected to FGM will increase significantly over the next 15 years.
Evidently, laws alone are not effective in deterring FGM/C. We must also involve local communities in this fight. In many communities where FGM/C is a defining part of the culture, the key to change lies in transforming the perceptions and attitudes of cultural gatekeepers such as elders and traditional healers.
They are the ones who play the most decisive role in defining the cultural identity of the community. Enlisting them as allies in the war against FGM/C is therefore indispensable in ending the practice.
As the largest Africa-led health NGO in Africa, with a presence in more than 35 African countries, Amref Health Africa has purposely involved cultural gatekeepers of local communities in its anti-FGM/C interventions. This model has produced commendable results and can serve as a blueprint for ending FGM/C around the world
By patiently engaging elders, traditional circumcisers and moran chiefs in the Maasai and Samburu communities in East Africa, we have successfully convinced a significant number of them to withdraw support for FGM/C.
In place of FGM/C, we have promoted the alternative rite of passage (ARP) model, which retains all the cultural celebrations surrounding a girl’s transition to womanhood but without the cut and early marriage.
In just under a decade, 15,000 girls in the Maasai and Samburu communities have gone through the ARP program. This would not have been possible if cultural decision-makers and community gatekeepers did not take ownership and leadership of the fight against FGM/C.
Tellingly, one of the global champions of ARP hails from the Maasai community in Kenya. Nice Leng’ete, who escaped the cut when she was 8-years-old, has earned global acclaim, including a feature story in the New York Times, because of her community-led approach to ending FGM.
Helping 15,000 Maasai and Samburu girls avoid the is still not enough in view of the prevalence of FGM/C in these two communities. We are committed to doing much more and are building strategic partnerships to accelerate progress.
This notwithstanding, our ARP model has been successful thus far and serves as a compelling example of the effectiveness of involving local communities in the war against FGM/C.
Through our work, we have demonstrated that local communities are essential allies. However, for this to work, organisations have to be willing to roll up their sleeves and work in these communities.
During this year’s International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, we need to amplify the voice of local communities, cognisant of the fact that the greatest catalyst for cultural change comes from within a culture and not outside it.