A fortnight ago I announced that the UK, through the Department for International Development, would throw its weight behind the global movement to finally bring an end Female Genital Cutting (FGC). Momentum is building and I firmly believe we have a chance to end the practice within a generation, stopping the untold physical and psychological damage it is bringing upon millions of girls across the world every year. Our children's children will be able to look back on FGC as we do foot binding today.
But with this goal comes a whole host of questions - how do we reverse a practice that has been so deeply ingrained in many cultures for thousands of years? How can we address the issue without just driving the practice underground? What approaches work?
Last Thursday I was in Senegal to find some answers. The West African nation has led the world in efforts to end FGC since the Government outlawed the practice in 1999. By the end of last year nearly 6,000 communities had declared they were abandoning FGC and the government has a target to end it entirely by 2015.
Among the inspirational NGOs helping to make this happen is Tostan. Founded in 1991 by Molly Melching, Tostan has a completely unique approach to working with communities. When invited into a village a Tostan facilitator, who will often be from a neighbouring village, will move into the community and become part of its daily life. He or she will then host regular classes with both adults and children, focusing on democracy, human rights, hygiene and health, as well as basic literacy and numeracy. By empowering the community and informing them of their rights and responsibilities, Tostan enables them to make their own collective decision to abandon FGC.
The process seems to work - more than 6,500 communities in Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, the Gambia, Djibouti, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso and Somalia have made public declarations for abandonment of harmful traditional practices following the Tostan programme. A UNICEF-funded evaluation found that FGC prevalence in young girls dropped by 77% in the decade following these declarations.
On Thursday Molly invited me to visit Keur Simbara, a tiny village near Thies - Senegal's second city - to see what Tostan's programme can achieve. Home to just 300 people, Keur Simbara formally and collectively abandoned FGC in 1998 after following Tostan's programme. After a wonderful welcome, when this isolated, sandy village became filled with music and dancing, the villagers told me how they came to this hugely impressive decision.
Demba Diawara, Imam and village chief, told of how he dedicated himself to building a consensus for ending FGC in his community - a vital intervention as many falsely link this harmful traditional practice with religious obligation. There is no passage in the Qu'ran nor the Bible that recommends female circumcision. By making a stand, Demba was able to help break the taboo around FGC and make the first steps towards abandonment.
One of the most powerful testimonies was from Oureye Sall. Married by her parents at the age of 14 to a man 41 years her senior, Oureye was also put through FGC as a child. Instead of being given the opportunity to learn how to read and write, Oureye was then was taught how to practice FGC. For years she was the local FGC practitioner, before Tostan's programme made her aware of the consequences of FGC (terrible health consequences for women) and the Imam confirmed it was not a religious obligation. She is now a pioneer in the movement to end the practice and has travelled to over 100 villages across Senegal to spread awareness of the harm it causes.
Molly Melching, my guide throughout the visit, makes for a truly formidable ally in the movement to end FGC. This was only one village, in one country in a continent which still has a long road ahead of it but this approach - of working alongside and within communities to help them come to their own conclusions about the harm and trauma caused by FGC and change social norms - offers hope that the successes in Senegal can be replicated across Africa. There are countries where this harmful traditional practice is far more deeply ingrained in culture, society and even politics than it is in Senegal, but it's clear that attempting to dictate to people what is right and wrong when it comes to a 2000 year-old tradition just won't work.
And given that we have upwards of 20,000 girls at risk of FGC in the UK - the ties between mother countries and diasporas are intrinsically linked - and I am convinced that the answer to our diasporas lies partly - if not mostly - in the behaviour change models bringing such success in Africa.
Pictures: James Fulker/DFID
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