In Guinea-Bissau, one of the countries in West Africa where Plan works, almost 50% of girls continue to be victims of genital mutilation. It is estimated that more than 125 million girls and women alive today have undergone genital mutilation or cutting. Of these, over 100 million are believed to be in Africa alone. If this were happening in any other continent like Europe or North America, the world would be in uproar at the painful and damaging procedure performed on a continent's youth.
The prevalence of FGM varies between regions of Guinea-Bissau, depending on the distribution of different ethnic groups who consider the practice part of their ethnic identity, traditional and religious beliefs. And this is the crux of the issue. FGM is so bound up with the culture of many groups that it becomes hard, and controversial, to tackle it without seeming to undermine the very foundations of that historic culture.
It requires sensitive handling if we are to persuade communities that FGM is not a necessary part of a girl's education and coming of age ritual. We need to get across the message that these girls are children, and as such they are not in a position to make a choice as to whether or not to participate in FGM. The process is forced upon them with a tragic inevitability, and rather than helping them grow up, it maps their future forever before they have even started living as adults. I believe this must stop.
Some groups opposed to FGM have argued that Plan should withdraw from communities where FGM takes place. That would be a self-defeating strategy as the influence we have in those communities would vanish overnight.
Instead, Plan needs to work with community leaders and FGM operators to help address the problem at its core. One such individual whom I find inspiring is Sawandim Sawo, 68, who practised FGM for 18 years before joining Plan's FGM project to fight against the harmful practice. She now takes part in raising awareness projects in Sawocunda, Guinea Bisssau.
She explains: "In our tradition, all FGM practitioners have a special status in the community and they are seen as professors or doctors of the community. I was very proud to be an FGM practitioner and didn't know of the serious health problems it caused to girls and women."
Now Sawandim says she would never perform another cutting again. "I hope everybody understands the dangers it poses to our health," she says.
It just shows that by getting community leaders and influencers on board and comfortable with the new message about the dangers of FGM is the key. Plan also uses a "Child to Child" and "Child to Parent" approach, which allows girls to raise awareness and promote their rights among themselves and with their parents using methods that are creative and do not offend people's sensitivities. They use acting, drawing, poetry and songs to get the powerful message across.
In 2012, Guinea-Bissau's national parliament passed a law banning FGM practices, a significant step towards elimination of the practice in country. Madina Bocoum Daff, FGM project manager for Plan in Mali, another inspiring woman who works for Plan, says it is a step in the right direction.
"A woman like me who has undergone excision knows the trauma and life-long impact it brings on one's mind and body. The pain and suffering I have endured and the childhood I lost cannot be reversed. But, with determination and concerted action we can save hundreds of thousands of children from this inhuman practice," she concludes.