This week a 24 year-old American woman urged President Obama to take action on female genital mutilation (FGM), on the grounds that it affects thousands of girls in the United States. Jaha Dukureh's protest follows a campaign by the British schoolgirl Fahma Mohamed which is supported by Malala Yousafzai, the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon and some 250,000 people who have signed her petition.
There has been a reluctance on the part of Western governments to tackle FGM, for very good reasons. Intervention can be counter-productive, even when it comes from governments in the countries in which the practice is widespread. In Senegal in 1999, the government passed a law making the practice illegal. The following day, 100 girls in the region of Kedougou were cut in protest.
Molly Melching, one of the women featured in new research, Mothers of Innovation, was given the courage to get involved when her own daughter, Zoe, who is American but had grown up in Senegal, came home asking if she could be cut. If she wasn't part of 'the tradition,' as it is known (when it is spoken of at all), she wouldn't be respected. Cutting was a rite of passage.
Melching had worked in development in Senegal all her adult life but had always shied away from addressing the 2000 year-old tradition. It was too deeply ingrained, surrounded by taboos. In much of rural Senegal, any woman who wasn't cut was not respected and couldn't participate in women's meetings. One woman from a village where cutting was not the norm moved to one where it was and told Melching that when she came into a room, the other women would get up and walk out. If she washed clothes, they re-washed them.
Melching doesn't use the term FGM, which is how the UN's preferred designation. She calls it female genital cutting, FGC, because that carries less weight of counter-productive disapproval and disdain. 'I have lived in Senegal for 40 years,' she says, 'and I have never met a mother who wants to hurt her child. The reason people were cutting their daughters was so they would be loved and respected and get good husbands.'
Innovation often depends on re-framing a problem. Molly Melching looked at the problem not from above, as other agencies were doing, but from below, from what it feels like to be a woman who prides herself on upholding an ancient and noble tradition.
Molly's organisation, Tostan, took a human rights approach, integrating FGC with work on problem-solving, health and hygiene, preventing child mortality, financial management of village projects, leadership and group dynamics. She focused on what communities wanted, working with them, rather than doing things to them. On 31 July 1997, 13 women who had been on Molly Melching's women's health programme made a public declaration that they were renouncing the practice of FGC. Their action spread, little by little, to the point that now 5000 villages in Senegal have rejected the practice.
Young women in the West like Jaha Dukureh and Fahma Mohamed who speak out against FGC are immensely powerful advocates. As people who are directly affected, they have the moral authority to goad others into action. Molly Melching's work shows that there are effective interventions. But interference can also be counterproductive, if it involves throwing up our hands in horror, responding in a way that is patronising or supercilious about deeply treasured social norms. Molly Melching has an awful lot to tell us.
Register for the launch of Mothers of Innovation to find out more about how Molly Melching has dramatically reduced FGC in Senegal.