“In politics and sociology you reach a tipping point and once you’ve reached it, things change,” says Min-whee Kang of the UN Children's Fund. “This is what we’re aiming at to stop female genital mutilation and cutting in The Gambia.”
But a strong attachment to the practice in the country means anti-FGM activists must combat the custom indirectly through focusing on improving girls' and women's health and education.
Twenty-four community represenatives in Gambia’s Upper River Region on 12 June signed a public declaration abandoning female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C), in the presence of government officials, village chiefs, women’s groups and international development agencies. They were the first of 80 villages in the region – all of them from the Mandinka or Fula ethnic groups – where West African NGO Tostan, supported by UNICEF, are working to eliminate FGM/C.
“We are using an 'organized diffusion model': we start with just a few villages, targeting everyone – girls, women, men, chiefs, Imams [religious leaders], and as the word spreads, they spread the message to other villages," UNICEF's Gambia head, Kang told IRIN. "It’s a people-to-people approach."
The Upper River Region has the country’s highest FGM/C rates, with 90 percent of women and girls undergoing cutting, as opposed to 78 percent countrywide, according to 2006 government figures. FGM/C poses numerous physical and mental health risks, including birth complications, maternal death, infertility, urinary incontinence and tetanus, says a Tostan and UNICEF communiqué.
|FGM/C rates have not fallen [in the Gambia]. Indeed the average age of girls being cut is dropping|
Despite several decades of NGO attempts to curtail FGM/C in The Gambia, rates have not fallen. Indeed the average age of girls being cut is dropping, according to Kang.
“People do not really understand the health implications [of FGM/C]," Kang said. "There are myths about where it originates from and why it is done."
But some Gambians resent what they see as interference.
Ma Hawa Conteh, 55, mother of three girls from Upper River Region, told IRIN: “There is a lot of noise made by people that [female] circumcision is not good, but I have never seen someone who had died as a result of it. Instead I think women have been healthier.”
Binta Balajoh, 22, from the Serekunda area, 12km from the capital Banjul, told IRIN she was cut when she was nine years old: “The prophet said Muslim males and females should be circumcised…When I was young I used to feel pain, but now that I have children the pain is gone.”
Both are dismayed at what they see as the interference of outsiders in their traditional customs. “We should not question what used to happen in the past - we must do as tradition dictates,” Conteh told IRIN. "Some women have been paid to come and confuse us so that we will abandon what our ancestors have been practicing. Who are these people to raise their voice? I am a devout Muslim and I will follow the teachings of the prophet…I think they [anti-FGM/C campaigners] are misguided.”
|Take foot-binding in in China – it was once a social norm, but social norms are man-made constructs…We need to emancipate people to rethink such norms|
Facing such strong attachment to the custom, Tostan staff realized they had to take an indirect approach to change. Some anti-FGM/C campaigners have in the past used shock tactics including displaying pictures of the cutting process to villagers, but these have backfired, instead pushing the practice underground, UNICEF's Kang said.
“We must be sensitive. From many women’s perspective it is out of genuine care for their daughters’ social status and ability to marry that they perpetuate the practice.”
Working in Upper River Region, where half of the adults are illiterate, and most have not undergone formal schooling, Tostan instead incorporates FGM/C messages into a wider education programme addressing human rights, democracy and citizenship, nutrition, and health issues.
“We do not talk directly about FGM/C…We discuss how girls are pulled out of school to undergo child marriages; we talk about participation in society; we look at some of the health problems women may face when delivering babies,” said Bakary Tamba, Tostan's Programme Coordinator. “Then we address FGM/C through this.”
The hope is that once participants starting making links between FGM/C and some of these social issues, they will pass on their learning to other families, villagers and religious leaders, and eventually on to other villages, Tamba said.
Threatening Islam is not the point, he stressed: “These discussions do not have to mean they are letting down the Islamic religion.” Indeed some NGOs encourage villagers to retain a female initiation ceremony – just without the cutting.
Changing attitudes to traditional practices that villagers hold dear is challenging, but practitioners must not shy away, said Kang. “Take foot-binding in in China – it was once a social norm, but social norms are man-made constructs that we agree among ourselves…We need to emancipate people to rethink such social norms when they cause people harm.”
President Yahya Jammeh backs a ban on FGM/C and supports the campaign, but is not yet ready to pass a law banning the practice, Tamba said.
“We have to go slowly, knowing the people who are involved in it. Banning FGM/C now could create problems…but one day a law could be passed,” he said.