06/02/2017 08:20 GMT | Updated 07/02/2018 05:12 GMT

Grandmothers Can Help Us Stop FGM - So Why Do Grassroots Projects Often Ignore Them?

By understanding these social structures and involving grandmothers as allies, the programme has not only succeeded in reducing FGM, but has also increased older women's sense of self-confidence, and their feeling of being respected and useful in their own community

When it comes to traditional cultural practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) it's clear that most people view grandmothers and elderly female family members as being part of the problem and not the solution.

Today (Monday 6th February), on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, we are again reminded of these acts of violence against women and girls, which often to lead to death or a lifetime of health complications, are viewed as being cultural traditions which will eventually 'die out' with elder family members. But is this really true, and are grassroots projects failing because they ignore the very people who have the strongest capacity to discourage the practice?

Recently the Department for International Development announced that they are going to give £3 million to AmplifyChange, a fund which supports 40 small grassroots groups working to address FGM. But what makes a good grassroots project, and are they really engaging the very people they need to, in order to make change happen?

FGM programmes are often designed by people external to the practicing community, or the project must conform to certain principles that are stipulated by funders who are external to the practicing communities. Although many FGM programmes have identified key individuals who have an influence, often these people have been religious leaders, men and women who perform the procedure - not grandmothers.

However my research shows that this approach is not based on a careful analysis of social roles and influence within communities who continue to practice FGM. What is becoming more and more clear, especially through my work as an anthropologist at the University of Sussex, is that to change social norms it is essential to work directly with the groups of people who have the most authority to modify those traditions. This is why an organisation in Senegal called The Grandmother Project - Change through Culture (GMP) - has been so successful.

In 2008 GMP's Girls' Holistic Development programme was initiated, which aims to improve community attitudes and socio-cultural norms relating to FGM, early marriage and teenage pregnancy. It works with families and communities to identify and reinforce beneficial cultural roles, values and practices which support girls' development and well-being. It involves Intergenerational Forums which bring together groups of peers of both sexes of different ages to discuss delicate topics in a culturally-sensitive manner. The programme also runs training sessions that involve grandmothers, women of reproductive age, and community health workers; and Days in Praise of Grandmothers to celebrate their role as educators, carers and decision-makers in the sphere of maternal and child health.

The real success of the project is that The Grandmother Project realised quickly that although many people in patriarchal societies claim that 'men make all the decisions' this is not entirely true. In many contexts where FGM is carried out on infants, the practice is often conducted by senior women without ever consulting or informing their sons, who may be totally opposed to the practice. When it is time for a man to marry, he may prefer a woman who has not undergone FGM. Although men will publicly negotiate the marriage - behind the scenes it is the older women in the family (the husband-to-be's mother, his grandmother, and aunties) who are involved in identifying a suitable match for him. In these situations, older women can play a crucial role, alongside men, to cause a shift in preference towards un-circumcised wives.

By understanding these social structures and involving grandmothers as allies, the programme has not only succeeded in reducing FGM, but has also increased older women's sense of self-confidence, and their feeling of being respected and useful in their own community. During a 2015 study, 340 community members from Velingara, Senegal, where the project is carried out, were asked "is FGM a cultural duty which should be followed?" The results showed that of those who gave their opinion, a staggering 83 percent of grandmothers were convinced that there is no cultural support for the practice - compared to 75 percent of men and women of reproductive age, and 69 percent of adolescent girls. This is all the more interesting because before the programme started a similar poll showed grandmothers were among the staunchest supporters of the practice, with 86 per cent declaring that FGM was a duty within the culture.

As one grandmother, Coumba Balde, testified, "Before we practised FGM, but today this is no longer the case. We teach our children beneficial cultural values, and we have abandoned the harmful practices." In a focus group with women of reproductive age, they agreed that "the grandmothers are now more aware of the dangers linked to FGM".

What is becoming abundantly clear is that with the right approach - including humility on the part of staff in involved, respect for the local culture, appreciation of the elders' role, and adult education techniques which use people's own experiences as a foundation for learning - grassroots programmes can encourage grandmothers to change their minds on ancient practices like FGM.

The Grandmother Project has observed that the guardians of tradition are not averse to change. When the grandmothers are respected, included and when programmes adopt an approach based on dialogue rather than prescriptive messages they are ready to modify age-old attitudes and practices. To assume that they never will is a dangerous and ageist stereotype - which sadly could be preventing us from ending FGM and many other culturally engrained forms of violence against women.