PRB Discuss Online: Abandoning Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting

(February 2009) As many as 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), and more than 3 million girls are at risk for cutting each year on the African continent alone. FGM/C is almost impossible for individuals to abandon without support from their social networks, most notably within their intramarrying groups. Through Tostan, an organization dedicated to empowering women, adolescent girls, and their communities, innovative and courageous individuals have mobilized communities to abandon the practice through cross-cutting educational programs and attention to human rights within each community’s social context and culture.


During a PRB Discuss Online, Molly Melching, founder and executive director of Tostan, answered participants’ questions on the challenges and successes of Tostan’s work to curb genital cutting in Senegal and several other African countries.


Feb. 4, 2009 12 PM EST


To read this transcript in French, go to Abandon des mutilations génitales féminines : histoires collectées sur le terrain .


Transcript of Questions and Answers


L. Ritz: By chance, is this practiced by those who come to the United States to live?
Molly Melching: Yes this is a practice that is continued even in the United States. FGC is a social convention necessary for good marriage and respectability within a given ethnic group, so it does not matter where one lives. In fact people often feel they must “prove” that they have not abandoned their traditions when they move to the West and even feel added pressure to continue. It is critical to include the diaspora groups in efforts to raise awareness on FGC as they greatly influence people in the communities at home.

Ernest Nettey: In your experience, what is the relationship between FGM and religion in Africa? Is FGM more widely practised by particular religions in Africa (and in the African diaspora)?If so, what accounts for this and how can can clerics be involved in any intervention?
Molly Melching: People often believe that FGC is a practice recommended by Islam. Many participants in the Tostan program claimed that they wanted to abandon the practice but could not because it was a religious obligation. However, it is not a practice required or recommended by Islam and many well known religious leaders have spoken out against the practice. Tostan always works closely with religious leaders on a national and local level to inform people and answer their questions. We have found that as more and more participants learn the human rights violations associated with FGC and the negative health consequences, they have put pressure on religious leaders to speak up and support their efforts to abandon the practice. We believe that people at the grassroots level can exert strong pressure on all leaders (religious leaders, politicians, local authorities) to help end the practice. This is why it is important to provide in-depth and empowering education to community members in their own national language who will in turn demand action from their leaders.

palang kasmi: culture is linked to practice of FGM in Nigeria.What is the way out?
Molly Melching: When asking people why they practice FGC, they often respond – it’s our tradition, it’s our culture. People do many things because they have learned it from their parents and their society, often without questioning why they do it. They simply know that if they don’t do something that everyone expects them to do, they could be marginalized or even excluded from their social group. Going against the expectations means risking intense disapproval and is difficult if not impossible for one person alone to do. A village mother, for example, would never dream of doing something that could harm her daughter’s reputation or chance for marriage. Thus,it is important to allow people who practice FGC to discuss the pros and cons of continuing or abandoning together without judgment, shame or blame involved. If people come to consensus as a group that FGC does not help achieve their goals of health, well-being, and harmony, they then need to reach out to the entire extended family to get them on board with the decision. This is why Tostan often holds inter-village meetings that allow people to debate and decide. This often leads to public declaration where the extended family comes together and makes the decision as a unified group. The public declaration marks the moment that the social norm has changed. No one is expected to practice FGC after the declaration, so no one individual is hurt by the decision.

Kantroo Chaman: All these harmful rites and rituals spring from superstitious and backward nature of such societies. The old and irrational beliefs, lack of understanding about value of human life and absence of a modernistic view point, contribute to such inhuman practices. Added to these conditions,be-liefs of male superiority and a female reluctance to part with the traditional norms and also lack of financial amenities stringent enough to give them access to modern education and information media retards the advances in this and other fields of woman empowerment. Do you think that unless a change in the mindset of the women is brought about the advancement in this field will remain a distant dream? So what measures do you suggest to remove this stumbling block? Is it not more important to attend to it at a time when some relatively advanced societies of Asia are experiencing a revival of such movements as are trying to curb any advancement of women?
Molly Melching: Hi Kantroo, The story of the communities that have made public declarations to collectively abandon FGC is the story of how this practice can be ended, and why more and more people are confident that FGC can become a thing of the past more rapidly than previously believed. As mentionned above, literally thousands upon thousands of people in Senegal have abandoned this practice, and many more are joining the movement. What is key is that this is not a “western” imposition; this is informed and empowered African communities making decisions for themselves, together, about their health, their human rights and responsibilities, and their futures. At Tostan, we have never found that communities lack understanding of the value of human life. In fact, we have found the opposite—we work with villagers who care about others, people who seek peace and who endeavor to build strong community. We have also found them to be rational. If someone hasn’t gotten all the information about something, they probably aren’t irrational, they are often just uninformed. Tostan found that introducing human rights education into our program allowed people to discuss the social practices that would help them to achieve their goals for a more positive future. This meant reflecting on traditions, often for the first time, maintaining positive ones and abandoning those that are harmful.

Henry Tagoe: The conflict of culture and law push such practices underground. What can be done in areas where FGM is outlawed but is still being practiced by a section of the population due to indigenous cultural believes?
Molly Melching: Henry, it is true that we are seeing this practice move underground in many countries. However, within the communities, the practice is not underground—people know who is cut and who is not. That is why the work of communities in Senegal has succeeded—because when communities are empowered and leading a movement, they can reach the people that no outsider could reach. In one instance a village in Southeastern Senegal abandoned FGC but the cutter went to another village (that had not abandoned) to cut a girl. It was the women from her own community that took this case to court and even insisted that the woman go to prison. Since she had been part of the declaration, the others felt she had violated their trust and the pact made by the community. It is important to inform people of the law, but more important to provide empowering education in national languages before enforcing a law—especially in countries where it is highly prevalent. Otherwise the law risks being very ineffective.

Irene Maweu: A friend told me that is we encouranged MEN participation in the eradication of Female Genital Mutilation and cutting, we would have enormous progresss. Are there countries where me are in the forefront against FGM/C?
Molly Melching: Irene, this is a very good point. In our experience in 7 African countries, men have emerged as strong leaders in the movement for FGC abandonment. We include men in the Community Empowerment Program and as they learn about human rights and responsibilities and realize the suffering the women have undergone, they begin supporting the end of the practice. In fact, a brilliant village man named Demba Diawara helped Tostan to understand that there needs to be agreement among all of the communities of the social network in order for abandonment to occur. He addressed his extended family with respect and led discussions in all these communities until people came to terms with the practice. His work led to the first public declaration of 12 interconnected villages on February 14, 1998. He has been one of the major leaders in the movement ever since. Most men have told us: “We just didn’t know!” As soon as the women begin explaining some of the problems they and their daughters have experienced, the men realize that the practice must not continue. Because the subject was previously taboo, no one ever discussed FGC, especially among mixed groups. It is also important to note that there is no one group that can end this practice by itself—it requires a unified decision by all members of the extended family—men, girls, grandmothers, religious leaders, village elders, minority ethnic groups, majority ethnic groups, the cutters, the diaspora—everyone must be involved. Having the support of local and national government is also critical in this process.

Kofi Awusabo-Asare: It is a good idea to take up the issue of FGM as a cause and see to its logical conclusion. My questions are: are we not driving the practice under-ground and secondly, what are we replacing the social system which accompanied the practice? It is not simply wishing away a practice and replacing with formal education only.
Molly Melching: Hi Kofi, The practice may be driven underground–but it is impossible for it to stay underground for long when communities themselves are leading and managing the abandonment movement. This is because in communities that have abandoned, they no longer want girls to be cut—which makes it more difficult for families to consider cutting their girls, even “underground”. The communities themselves then denounce cases after a declaration because they have ownership of the process and are empowered to act. As to your second question, we have found that FGC is only one part of a much larger social system—and that these social systems continue even after abandonment, even if certain aspects have changed. When Tostan enters a community, we first invite the community to define and come to consensus around their goals and objectives for the future. They then learn about and debate human rights and responsibilities over a period of several months. By the end of these sessions, the participants have themselves decided which social practices will help them achieve their goals and which need to be abandoned. In other words, before the program, the participants were operating from a “script” that was handed down to them by their ancestors, society, etc. and which they had never questioned. At the end of the program, the participants have analyzed and debated their received “script” and are empowered to change this script where necessary for achieving their new, commonly determined goals. As one village woman once told me once, “Our community is not a museum – things should always change for the better when necessary.”

Marie-Helene Mottin-Stlla: Focaliser les stratégies d’intervention sur les MGF sur l’approche juridique ne risque-t-il pas de renforcer la judiciarisation des rapports sociaux ? ce qui se réglait autrefois sous l’arbre à palabre devra se régler devant les tribunaux ?
Molly Melching: Au Sénégal, les milliers de villages qui ont abandonné collectivement l’excision ont pris cette décision historique avec fierté, sous l’arbre à palabres, et non pas de force, devant les tribunaux ! Lorsqu’on regarde l’exemple du pays où Tostan est né, on voit que l’histoire du processus d’abandon de l’excision ne vient pas de la mise en oeuvre d’une approche juridique, mais de l’appropriation par les communautés d’un programme d’éducation, basé sur les droits humains – en écho aux normes morales qui régissent déjà leurs modes de vie. Le processus d’abandon résulte de la prise de conscience collective des conséquences néfastes de la pratique ainsi que de l’importance de la protection des droits humains et de la possibilité d’un abandon coordonné, inter-communautaire. L’approche de l’abandon de l’excision par le modèle communautaire – « l’abandon collectif » – porte ses fruits depuis 1997. Plus de 3548 communautés au Sénégal se sont engagées dans le mouvement ! Au vu de ses résultats, cette approche respectueuse, compréhensive et positive a été retenue non seulement par le gouvernement du Sénégal, mais aussi par l’ensemble des organismes des Nations Unies dans leur déclaration conjointe interinstitutions de 2008. Les éléments fondamentaux qui ressortent de ce mouvement de masse en faveur de l’abandon de l’excision au Sénégal montrent qu’il est non seulement peu efficace mais encore contre-productif de focaliser les stratégies d’intervention des MGF sur l’approche juridique. Le processus qui mène à l’abandon de l’excision est un processus multisectoriel : à tous les échelons et dans tous les domaines, l’action est concertée. Bien évidemment la justice est concernée, dans le sens où la protection des droits humains de la personne est en jeu, mais elle est concernée au même titre que la santé, l’éducation, la protection de la femme, la solidarité. Au Sénégal, la loi de 1999 a suivi le processus d’abandon qui était en cours depuis le serment de Malicounda Bambara en 1997. La loi est venue accompagner le processus et reconnaître l’importance de l’engagement des femmes de Malicounda, Medina Cherif et Baliga. Elle a été fort controversée ; il est prouvé que la loi – non seulement du fait de la difficulté de son application mais aussi à la suite des violentes réactions qui ont suivi sa promulgation – n’a pas eu un impact direct sur la diminution de la pratique de l’excision. Dans des sociétés où la demande d’excision est universelle, la conséquence de la loi – la punition des parents ou de l’exciseuse – comporte moins de danger que la conséquence de ne pas faire exciser son enfant, qui serait alors isolé socialement et dont les perspectives de mariage seraient anéanties. Peut-on considérer l’ensemble de la population d’un pays comme des criminels ? Nous ne le croyons pas. Les populations qui pratiquent l’excision pensent par là prendre une décision qui va assurer l’avenir des jeunes filles. On a vu certains effets néfastes de la loi se traduire par l’abaissement de l’âge de l’excision et par la pratique clandestine, renforçant les risques directs pour la santé des filles (voir la stratégie coordonnée pour l’abandon de l’excision en une génération, Unicef, 2005). Cela ne veut pas dire que l’approche juridique est inadéquate ; cela dépend de ce que l’on attend comme résultats. Si l’on veut favoriser l’abandon de l’excision de la part des populations, alors l’approche juridique est insuffisante et elle peut créer des réactions qui renforcent la pratique. L’amendement, l’adoption et la mise en application des lois doivent se faire en consultation avec la populations et ses leaders religieux et traditionnels. Elles doivent être accompagnées de campagnes d’éducation et d’information afin de promouvoir le soutien général de la population en faveur de l’abandon de la pratique. Mais l’abandon de l’excision est avant tout le résultat d’un processus participatif, positif, d’évolution sociale au niveau communautaire. Les programmes, comme Tostan, qui ont réussi à faciliter ce résultat à grande échelle, ne portent pas de jugement. Voici un extrait de la déclaration conjointe des Nations Unies (OMS, HCDH, ONUSIDA, PNUD, UNCEA, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNIFEM) : « Il est apparu que les programmes qui incluent des activités d’éducation permettant aux populations de faire des choix, des discussions et des débats qui prévoient des engagements publics et une diffusion organisée permettent d’obtenir le consensus et la coordination nécessaires pour un abandon durable de l’excision au niveau des communautés […] l’éducation visant à une responsabilisation permet aux populations d’examiner leurs propres croyances et valeurs relatives à la pratique d’une manière dynamique et ouverte, qui ne soit pas ressentie ou perçue comme menaçante ».

Hanny Lightfoot-Klein: dearest Molly Melching, It’s been rather a long time since we have spoken personally, but I’ve kept up to date on your extremely important work. At the moment I am in Pittsburgh, PA, and doing some consciousness raising among the undergrads and also graduate students and faculty at Chatham University for the next two weeks. I have brought with me the documentary the Morgan Pollok did a couple of years ago about your work and mine. I’m still writing, and lecturing and serving as expert witness in US asylum court and UK tribunals. To date I have won asylum for more than 110 women, and even more importantly, their daughters. It’s a wonderful “last career” for an old lady like me. I’m 82 years old by now and still going strong. My 30 years of involvement are of course nothing compared to your 38 in Africa. I am so happy for your successes. I have always known that the 4th decade would be the crucial one, and that we are finally beginning to see some real change taking place. I have also brought with me a circumcision knife that was not among those that was buried somewhere in the desert in a laying down of knives ceremony. It was sent to me instead, and I plan to live long enough to be able to finally bury it as well. I would love to hear from you.
Molly Melching: Dearest Hanny, Wow! Thank you so much for this wonderful note. You are such an important reference in the history of FGC abandonment. Tostan recognizes that without the research and activism of those like you who spent years in the field studying FGC, this grassroots movement would not be occurring today in Senegal and other countries. We really appreciate all that you have contributed, particularly given that it was even more difficult to discuss these issues years earlier. Demba Diawara, the villager from Keur Simbara who helped show Tostan the way forward, once told me that if we had raised this issue ten years earlier in his intramarrying communities, we might not have left the community alive as the subject was so taboo. Thus we have much to thank you for. We are happy about the throwing down of knives but have found even more important the empowerment of thousands of women who are confidently abandoning this practice because they feel they have choices for the first time. How I wish I could give you a big hug from me and from all these amazing women in Senegal!

SYLLA NDEYE ASTOU: aprés l’évaluation du plan d’action MGF 1998- 2001, la stratégie retenue pour mener les activités afin d’atteivdre l’objectif fixé ( eradication MGF AU SENEGAL d’ici 2015)que devont faire pour accélérer l’abandon de la pratique MGF au Sénégal
Molly Melching: Suite à l’évaluation du Plan d’Action National du Sénégal 1998-2001 pour l’abandon de la pratique de l’excision, et dans le cadre du mouvement d’accélération de l’abandon, le Gouvernement du Sénégal a organisé un atelier sous-régional à Dakar du 13 au 15 octobre 2008. Cet atelier, rassemblant des acteurs locaux et des représentants des pays voisins du Sénégal (Gambie, Guinée, Guinée-Bissau, Mali et Mauritanie) a été l’occasion de discuter de la mise en place d’une approche partagée par tous ces pays face à un objectif commun. Tous les participants se sont accordés sur le fait qu’une seule et même action concertée et commune permettra l’atteinte de l’objectif d’abandon total d’ici à 2015.

Cette conception d’une action transfrontalière correspond à la vision de diffusion organisée de Tostan. En effet, elle engendrera une action démultipliée, touchant les populations au travers des réseaux communautaires et culturels, en dépit des barrières géographiques et gouvernementales. Par ailleurs, nous pensons que l’éducation de base, fondée sur une approche humaine, suivi des réunions inter-villageoises et des déclarations publiques d’abandon de l’excision sont indispensables. Ces déclarations sont des manifestations-clés dans le processus d’abandon et doivent bénéficier d’une plus large publicité. La communication et l’information du grand public jouent un rôle fondamental dans la prise de conscience à un niveau global. Il serait donc souhaitable d’inviter plus de personnes à participer à ces déclarations, notamment des populations de régions voisines dans le cadre strictement national, ainsi que des représentants des régions transfrontalières dans le cas de déclarations dans des régions frontalières.

Judy Brink: Do you think the alternative rites approach works?
Molly Melching: I think alternative rites can work in areas where initiation rites are associated with the actual cutting as long as the alternative rites include empowering education for the entire community. Tostan has found that the most significant action one can undertake is a holistic, human rights based program of non formal education in national languages for all members of the community so that everyone is informed and unified in the decision to abandon the practice. Gerry Mackie, an expert on Female Genital Cutting, has written on this subject in the following book: Female Circumcision in Africa: Culture, Controversy and Change. Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund, eds. pp.253-281. Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers. The chapter is entitled: Female Genital Cutting: The Beginning of the End. It can be found on the Tostan website under – Resources.

Dr. Josephine Alumanah: I come from an area where FGM is undertaken when women are pregnant. I had a focus group discussion (FGD) with some groups of women from the area. They all supported FGM ‘because it is our tradition’. After a comment by one of the women, I decided to do an indepth interview. It was discovered that many families have abandoned the practice, unlike the result of the FGD. They do not undertake the cuttings, but all the other rituals that accompany it, for example, the paying of some money, buying cloths for certain members of the family, buying things for the wife, etc. This is insisted upon particularly if the husband is not from the town. In other words, FGM is undertaken because of the benefit, the people do not care about the act itself, but what they stand to gain. This piece of information did not come out during the FGD because nobody wanted to be the one letting out the secret. To them the tradition is still on, no matter what form it takes. What do you think?
Molly Melching: Dr. Alumanah, this is so interesting! Thanks so much for sharing this information. I attended a UNICEF conference last May featuring Cristina Bicchieri, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote a great book entitled: “The Grammar of Society”. She explained that social norms are most often followed not because people have consciously chosen to do so, but rather because of the expectations of the others in the group. In some cases, people may very much want to abandon FGC but do not want to bring this up in public for fear of being seen as “traitors to their culture” in the eyes of others. Many people in the same group may secretly want to abandon but do not realize others also want to abandon and so continue to practice or refuse to admit they have abandoned so as not to feel the disapproval of society. This is what Professor Biccieri terms: “pluralistic ignorance”. One village leader explained to me that she had long wanted to abandon FGC but did not dare mention this to anyone. She said she listened on the radio to declaration ceremonies for FGC abandonment and was so happy. I asked her why she had not spoken out earlier to others in the community about ending the practice. “I dared not” she said “for fear of being ridiculed.” It was only when her relatives from other villages who had abandoned came and spoke with her community that they publicly discussed ending for the first time. “I was so surprised to find out that my own neighbors were ready to stop and even my best friend! Her namesake died of a hemorrhage and her own daughter went to the hospital and I didn’t know it!” she told me. Perhaps people that you interviewed had the same fear of admitting to having ended the practice. Could the gifts and “benefits” perhaps have been used as a camouflage – visible signs of a ceremony needed to convince others that the practice continues? In this way, they are protecting themselves from potential outside judgement from other relatives who have not abandoned and would expect them to continue.

Sarah G. Epstein: Does your program discuss contraception with the women so they can space their children and stop when their families are complete?
Molly Melching: Yes Sally. This is very important in the Tostan program. Tostan feels it is critical that women learn about reproductive health and we address this not only in the health module but also in the first module of the program on Human Rights. We found that without first doing Human Rights education, women were afraid to discuss these issues with their husbands. Both the human rights and health modules gave the women the confidence and the information they needed to discuss convincingly with their husbands about the need for birth spacing. Tostan encourages a very gentle but firm approach and the men have been very supportive both in this area and also in ending FGC.

Charlotte Feldman-Jacobs: Given the new U.S. administration, and the new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with whom you have worked before, what would you like to see on the U.S. foreign policy agenda in the next four years?
Molly Melching: We at Tostan believe that the new administration will fulfill its promises to increase development support to the poorest and most marginalized communities around the world. We would humbly recommend, however, that they avoid repeating mistakes of the past by leveraging the best of our collective knowledge to create a new kind of development that sees individuals and communities in the developing world not as “recipients” or “targets” but as partners and collaborators in our common search for a better world. Specifically, we would recommend:

-Using proven, cost-effective strategies to better involve local communities in all of the processes that determine how development programs are identified, conceptualized, planned, implemented, managed, and evaluated. Communities have a fundamental right to a strong voice in these areas–yet very often are not sufficiently listened to.

-Challenging US Government agencies and their partners to take a more holistic, comprehensive view of development and promote strategies that would allow programs to collaborate and reinforce one another, rather than running parallel programs seeking complementary aims without communication or discussion. To this end, the administration should seek to support programs that engage communities across a wide range of areas, providing a foundation for development that can then leverage the amazing knowledge that already exists within communities.

-Increasing the use of cross-cutting strategies that focus on relevant knowledge and practical skill sets in multiple areas—which can greatly increase sustainability and dramatically reduce development costs in the long-term. Beyond any specific goal related to a single area in health, economic development, democratic engagement, etc, a primary goal of all development programs should be to reinforce local capacity so that the community itself can lead future projects.

-Increasing the use of strategies that focus on building local and in-country skills rather than simply purchasing short-term fixes from outside “experts.”

-Redefining accountability standards to be more stringent in evaluating results, while also taking into account the mounting evidence that points to the necessity of longer-term interventions. Just as transformations in civil society have taken (and continue to take) decades to happen here in the US, so too will they take such time in other countries. This does not mean that change cannot happen rapidly, just that we must be patient in waiting for movements and leaders to emerge.

-Increasing involvement of diaspora communities in development efforts in their home countries. These communities have unique insights into the realities of truly living in the global village, and their investments in their home communities can be combined with other development efforts to increase impacts. This can also be a wonderful point of entry to increase dialogue and improve relations with these communities in the US and Europe.

-Using of human rights as a tool for promoting human dignity and changing harmful social norms, notably by the US ratifying CEDAW, Convention on the Rights of Children, and upholding the Geneva conventions.

-Promoting dialogue and discussion as a means of resolving problems between countries. Solutions outside of diplomacy dramatically affect the lif