FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION
The Role of the Mobilizer
by Phil Bartle, PhD
Developing a strategy based on community empowerment methods
Developing effective strategies, using community mobilizer methods, for the eradication of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Introduction; The Mobilizer Approach to FGM:
The practice of FGM (female genital mutilation) in over thirty countries of Africa and the Middle East, as well as among immigrant communities from those countries now living in Asia, North America and Europe, is one which is deeply troubling. If you are a community worker where the practice prevails, you will have undoubtedly heard about it. If so, you need to learn much about its origins and cultural significance, the variations in its procedures, the medical problems (physiological and psychological) associated with it, and the human rights concerns of the UN, various NGOs, and individuals familiar with its practice and consequences.
This document is not focused upon those issues, and you are advised to learn as much as you can on them (eg on the internet and from published sources). Instead, this document is focused upon the various strategies you might take, as a community mobilizer, and what directions might be most appropriate for you and for the communities that you are encouraging to become stronger. The goal you may therefore set for yourself as a community mobilizer is eradication of female genital mutilation.
Eradication, the total removal of the practice, is a major change, and may not be possible in the short run in communities where it is deeply embedded. The first stage of your strategy, building trust, may include providing medical and hygiene training to parents, practitioners and leaders (without medicalizing the practice of FGM). It is suggested here that building trust may be necessary, and perhaps the only effective approach, to eradication. It must be emphasised that building trust, as an initial goal of the strategy for eradication, is not the same as alleviation (see poverty alleviation), which would reduce the desire for the complete removal of something, only because it temporarily removes some of the symptoms.
The objective, here, is to build trust among practitioners, leaders (in this case mainly women) and parents, in order to get access to their ears to listen to you about the need for eradication. Providing health and hygiene training, as well, is a valid opening for demonstrating the need for eradication of the practice of FGM.
Variations in Practice:
There are variations between families communities, societies, and countries in variables such as the ages of the victims and the amount and location of flesh that is removed. This document does not concentrate on describe the practice itself, and you are advised to read the WHO "Female genital mutilation: a handbook for frontline workers," which is also available on the internet at http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/fgm/fch_wmh_005/en/index.html.
FGM is usually practised on girls between the age of 3 to 11 but can be much younger, and as late as during first pregnancy. There is some evidence that the age is getting lower over time, and more removed from its traditional association with puberty rites. As you will see later, association with public puberty rites can be an important element of your strategy for eradicating FGM.
It may range from the removal of the tip of the clitoris, through total clitorectomy, removal of surrounding tissue, to enfibulation (sewing up part of the vagina to make the opening smaller). It may involve a single girl in one event, or several girls in a group procedure. Communities vary.
As well as the extreme pain and the intense trauma (physical and emotional) of the event, it is also associated with practices, such as the use of unclean knives, razors, scalpels, broken glass or using the same instrument for several girls, that spread various diseases, including hepatitis and HIV/Aids.
Nurses and doctors trained in western medicine seldom practice FGM (and the UN advises all such professionals to avoid the practice). Those who do practice FGM, barbers, traditional healers, TBAs (traditional birth attendants) and others, are seldom trained in hygiene and the spread of disease.
Practices vary among societies. In Somali society, for example, men are warned to not marry uncircumcised girls. It is believed that uncircumcised girls are morally weak.
Apart from some barbers and traditional healers in a few of the practising societies, men do not usually participate directly in FGM, however, and in some cases they oppose it. For the most part, women plan, implement and enforce FGM. The family loses dowry and respect in the society if daughters are not cut. Women play a greater cultural dominance and are the strongest opponents of FGM eradication.
(The source of this, as well as my personal experience, is from private correspondence with a Somali woman now doing her PhD on this topic, but who requests here to remain anonymous). The fact of the dominance of women in sustaining the practice, and the preference of men not to get involved, may be an important factor in your strategy, so it is important that you research your community well before beginning any work.
The Association with Islam:
The practice of FGM (apparently for thousands of years) long predates the beginning of Islam (ie seventh century), although it appears to be associated statistically with Islamic communities today (more in Africa than in Asia). It is also practised in non Islamic societies, including Christian and animist.
The Koran (Qu'ran) does not mention FGM. In a hadeeth, FGM is permitted, but nowhere is it required. The Koran (Qu'ran) does not mention FGM. In a hadeeth, FGM is permitted, but nowhere is it required. In a hadeeth, the Holy Prophet, Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him, cautioned a certain woman, Um Attiyah (known as a specialist in performing FGM) to be moderate (removing only the prepuce ["foreskin"] from the clitoris).
Several speakers try to suggest that the practice is sanctioned by Islam, and it is widely believed among illiterate communities to be a valid Islamic practice. It is not, and this is where you may find it valuable to cultivate Islamic clerics as your allies. Whether or not it is officially part of Islam, the practice is fervently subscribed by many people, and attempts to eradicate it may easily be misinterpreted as attacks on Islam.
Ironically, Islam prohibits the mutilation of any part of the body. Even a permitted act will be forbidden if it causes bodily harm.
Some of the harm to the victims appears so much later after the event that non educated people will not be able to see the relationship; part of your message will be to demonstrate it. Here the health and hygiene education provides the right environment. You need allies, in the form of Islamic clerics, to publicise the hadeeth that mutilation of the body is proscribed (forbidden) by Islam.
Other proponents of the practice claim that it is essential to their culture, and its eradication may undermine cultural integrity. This view will be examined below when we start looking for developing strategies appropriate for community animators.
Animation and Social Change:
In orthodox mobilization strategies, the idea is to unify a community and engage in activities leading to a result favoured by the majority of the community members, or all of the community by consensus. The eradication of FGM practices is often just the opposite; the majority of the community members often wish to sustain the practice, and see it as an important element of their identity. That calls for special strategies for mobilizers.
It is the international community, the UN and its agencies, and Governments and various non governmental agencies from countries in Europe and North America who are opposed to FGM. (All are seen as "foreigners" to the local community). Where FGM is practised, there are strong feelings in favour of the practice. People who hold those views see the desire to remove FGM as trying to impose different (foreign) cultural values on the community.
In contrast, other people (eg those from the West) see the practice as repugnant and needing eradication in spite of locally held values. In orthodox community development, building a communal water supply is relatively acceptable in contrast to the removal of an ancient and traditional practice.
Eliminating the practice of FGM in a community is social change. It calls for changes in attitudes and changes in behaviour. Social animation, or the mobilising of communities leading to increased empowerment, is also social change. You as a community animator, must therefore know some things about the nature of "society" and "social change." An introduction to the nature of the social perspective, the superorganic, is available to you elsewhere in this web site, but it should only be seen as only an introduction.
Much thought, observation, reading and discussion about the nature of society and culture is essential for all social animation. Nowhere is that more important than in this sensitive and contentious issue, female genital mutilation.
Many of the proponents of FGM say that the practice is deeply embedded in local culture, and that its removal will negatively affect cultural identity and pride. The word, "culture," is loosely used by many people, and it is important that you know what it is, and how the term can be used. Look to the document: "Culture and Social Animation" on this web site. See also: "Preserving Culture."
Your argument can go something like this:
As each community becomes more integrated into the world family of cultures, it must adapt in some ways. Members of each community can consciously choose to sustain those elements they see as the best, and allow less valuable traits to die out. The United Nations has a set of values, representing those of the world international community, which include respect for traditional languages and cultures, but which also supports important human rights.
To free girls from the horror, pain, danger and ignominy of FGM is a universal value supported by the international community.
When proponents of FGM accuse you of having no respect for their traditional culture, your point is that it is just the opposite. You have great respect for their culture. You see culture as a living, adapting, and growing thing, and that if they rigidly try to preserve it, rather than allowing it to adapt to changing world conditions, then they would be killing it. Your desire, and objective, you let them know, is to strengthen and empower their community, and that means to help its culture to grow and become strong.
Without preaching or lecturing to them, you need to find or generate ways to let them discover that continued practice of FGM is detrimental to sustainable empowerment of their community in these changing universal times. This should be the foundation for your strategy.
No one wants foreign values and practices to be forced upon them. Supporters of FGM see the abolition of the practice as a foreign value. You need to develop a strategy that lets them discover that it is in their best interests to remove it, and that its eradication is not something foreign or imposed upon them from outside. It needs to be their choice.
Think of the veil as an example. Covering the body, from head to foot, as with a burkha, or just the hair and face, as with a veil, is a practice of expressing modesty by women. Many western or Western-educated women see this as an expression of female oppression, and want to see it abolished. French women in colonial Algeria, for example, fought to have the veil abolished, and soldiers crudely and forcefully removed veils as among their duties. Local women continued to try to wear their veils. As many do today. If asked if they would wish to have the custom abolished, many women of Islamic faith say that the veil is their symbol of modesty. Their modesty is what makes their families more stable, more supportive of raising their children. They point to family violence, children committing murder, drugs and casual sex, as results of Western laxity in morality, and lack of modesty among women.
As the old proverb goes, "One man's meat is another's poison."
Do not assume that if you see a custom, such as FGM, as oppressive or abhorrent, that your view is shared by all. If you want to develop a strategy that will result in the eradication of the practice, you will find that preaching against it may prove a barrier rather than a help.
Trying to force the eradication of a practice that is deeply embedded in the history and culture of a community is like "Social Engineering" (crude and forced culture change). If culture is like a flower that grows from within; you can put water and sunlight on it to encourage it, but you can not make it get bigger by pulling it up from the top.
Choose your Allies:
Where a custom such as FGM is widely practised, a direct approach of seeking immediate community consensus may be counter-productive. You need to develop a strategy that will lead to your goal, not one that will lead to frustration and disappointment.
If you can not obtain community consensus at the beginning, then you need to build a cadre of allies to work towards your desired end. Some of these will be individuals who have arrived on their own at a conclusion that FGM should be removed. Others may be staff members, and their goals have conveniently become the same as those of their employer (eg an international NGO, a UN agency, or a bilateral support organization).
You need to be able to accurately distinguish between these so as to predict their level of support to your strategy, and their willingness to develop a strategy with you. If they are vocal and publicly outspoken against FGM, for example, they may be a hindrance to your strategy in its early stages.
Working with a group of these converted individuals, you can use your community animation techniques to develop a strategy with them which may include goals such as building trust and/or eradication. Here you have to be very careful, because the issue is so sensitive, to prevent that your group will not be identified as the enemy by the community at large.
If they preach against FGM (especially at the beginning), your group may become identified as anti tradition and raise opposition from traditional community members, making it emasculated (powerless) from the beginning. Carefully review the arguments and logic process described above, and review it with them as part of your developing an effective strategy with them.
Since FGM is not required by Islam, and since there is a proscription against any act harmful to the body, Islamic clerics can become powerful allies in your purpose.
Make Friends with the Enemy:
It is an old and trite proverb that says, "Honey attracts more (flies, bees, children) than vinegar." Its message, however, is clear, and applicable to your developing an effective strategy. If you want to eradicate the behaviour (of FGM), you need to change attitudes and beliefs. If you have read the dimensions of culture material in this web site, you will know that beliefs and values are usually much more difficult to change than introducing a new tool or procedure.
Earlier, it was mentioned that you might build your strategy towards eradication by first building trust. This is the beginning of your strategy, and if you build up enough trust and openness, you might negotiate that into eradication at a later stage of your strategy.
Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA) and well respected medicine women in Somali society, and some men in others, perform FGM. It has monetary value and enhances their position of power. In targeting practitioners, one must remember that it is a source of income and power, and you will have to offer and assist them in getting alternate sources. They may be hired, for example, in organizing and leading social rites of passage for girls that divert away from circumcision.
Prevention of disease and injury may be the door into your plan for eradication. For western educated professionals, the use of un-sterilised instruments is an obvious vector in the spread of various diseases. It is not so obvious to traditional practitioners. You can point out, however, that girls who have undergone FGM, in greater numbers and rates, are getting sick with jaundice or AIDS or other diseases, and the connection can be made.
If you can offer traditional practitioners some medical training, hygiene principles, and ways to prevent or reduce disease, then you have something of value that they can use. Providing it to them (with a certificate to show) will help you to make friends with the enemy.
Ensure that your hygiene training does not lead to the FGM practitioners merely using those practices in FGM. It is important to avoid the "medicalization" of FGM, but to use that health knowledge in convincing them to abandon FGM.
Make sure that your cadre of supporters are willing to suppress their vocal opposition to FGM, knowing that this is not hypocrisy but an essential element for the effective eradication of the practice. (The Director of WHO, in discussing FGM, warns us to be non judgmental if we wish to be successful in this work).
Use the skills your people have in social work and medicine, for assisting the practitioners, family members and community neighbours, to reduce the spread of disease, and open the door to trust and discussion that will lead to the eradication of FGM.
Do not Generate a Vacuum:
If you have developed a strategy to begin with building trust, offering assistance to practitioners of FGM to reduce disease, discomfort, and other negative effects of the practice, you might then start thinking of ways to remove the practice itself. As with building trust, you must develop a strategy that is applicable to the culture of the community where you work.
This training document cannot offer you a pre-designed recipe that is applicable everywhere. As you already know, communities differ – what might work in one might prove to be a disaster in another.
Let us borrow a concept better understood in psychology. Therapists have long known that, if you have a client who is depressed, you can instruct her or him to stop thinking negative or destructive thoughts. That does not work. Instead, what has been found to work, is to aid the client to consciously think positive thoughts (eg repeating positive affirmations at specified times of the day). The insertion of the new positive thoughts, no matter how mechanical at the beginning (viz the "fake it 'til you make it" slogan), have the desired effect of crowding out the negative thoughts that reinforce the disease of depression.
Now, let us apply the same reasoning to social and economic changes.
In a similar manner, just demanding the abolition of FGM will not likely work. If, instead, you encourage the addition of new activities that can substitute, you may be more successful in crowding out the physical act of female circumcision. Similarly, you can not just forbid the practice of FGM if practitioners are paid for the service, you need to find an alternative source of money for them.
In many societies, the attaining of puberty is something that is important as a rite of passage – public recognition by the community that a person has been transformed from child to adult. Male circumcision, for example, is thought by many social scientists, as a socially constructed event that substitutes the parallel natural physiological event of first menses of young women.
Female mutilation, however, goes further as a means of also attempting to remove sexual pleasure from women, forcing them to be more passive and obedient. Many African societies have first menstruation rites which do not include any physical mutilation. They are essentially social activities, often including seclusion followed by ritual cleansing.
In this training document, we can not tell you to help women create such rites, especially if they were not already being practised. But, if thorough, careful study of elements of the culture and traditions of the community where you work, and getting accurate and deep information from trusted informants, reveals that this might be an effective strategy, then we encourage you to try.
The Ashanti of West Africa, who, in their heyday of the seventeenth century covered most of what is now Ghana, Burkina Faso, Togo and Ivory Coast, were considered extreme enemies of Islam. They had a taboo against male and female circumcision, and no one could become elected as a chief if their skin were cut. They did have elaborate first menstrual rites, however, that had been reduced to almost nothing by the active opposition of the European Christian missionaries (who shrewdly substituted them with their own rites of passage such as confirmation and/or first communion).
In the nineteen seventies and eighties, young educated nationalistic women at the three universities of Ghana consciously decided to revive the tradition to reconfirm their African-ness and womanhood. They asked their own mothers and grandmothers, and they interviewed traditional healers and those possessed by the local gods (akomfo), to find out how the rituals took place. They did not try to mindlessly copy all the old rites, but chose those elements that they could adopt.
Such a process could be part of a strategy of women who wish to remove the physical mutilation, putting in another set of activities in its place. Such new rites could be consciously constructed modernised versions of puberty rites.
Remember that the women who perform FGM are paid for their service. A vacuum would be created if they are simply prohibited from earning money this way. If, instead, you agree to pay them an honorarium to preside in a ceremonial manner over girls puberty rites, they will be more agreeable to give up the payment for performing FGM.
Religion (especially Islam) may be another door into your strategy. Sharia law bans any permissible act that causes any harm to the individual. Since FGM is not an Islamic religious requirement, it might be wise to start at the mosques, with sheikhs, imams and other clerics. If you can get known and trusted religious teachers to take up your cause, and they can confirm the place of FGM in their religion, you will have powerful allies in your work. Remember that men tend to be squeamish about FGM, and prefer to avoid discussion of it. Most of the influential experts of Islam, the clerics, are men. They will not naturally speak out against FGM without some stimulation to do so. If you can get one or more to admit that it is not prescribed by Islam, and that physical harm to the body is proscribed by Islam, you need to convince them that it is their Islamic duty to work towards the ending of the FGM practice.
Where FGM is practised by non Moslems, you need to learn and understand their values and religious precepts very well. You may or may not decide to use them in your strategy.
Because of the medical harm related to FGM, you may wish to use the medical consequences to target traditional surgeons of FGM, including TBAs (traditional birth attendants), nurses, elderly medicine men and women and then the community at large. In classes about hygiene and disease transmission, you need to show how disease is transmitted during FGM procedures.
The UN warns against the "medicalization" of the practice of FGM. This means that the practice would continue but in a more sterile manner. Your important strategy of building trust must emphasise that the practice itself is medically and morally unnecessary, and that hygiene and health practices taught to traditional practitioners should be used in other procedures, not in the practice of FGM itself. It is also another good opening, to practitioners, if handled sensitively, to point out that FGM is not an Islamic requirement, and that it does not really guarantee that a women will be modest and circumspect. Since traditional practitioners are paid a fee for their service, as mentioned above, you also need to address this.
Many of discussions among the members of your loyal cadre of those wishing to remove FGM are needed, and a strategy must be designed to be applicable and appropriate to the community within which you work. It is a sensitive issue; walk carefully.
Preparing your Strategy:
After considering all the issues raised above, this is now a good time for you to sit down and map out a possible strategy. Here is a sketch to guide you, but it is not a recipe that should be followed blindly.
Because conditions vary from community to community, and change over time, you and your group need to custom-make a strategy yourself, not follow this one precisely. Your strategy should be a flexible and changing (living, developing) thing. It should vary as you increase the number of allies and supporters in your cadre, always asking for and encouraging their participation in revising it.
An outline of the steps or phases in your strategy should go something like this:
Write out your strategy as generated by the group. Keep a record of all your activities. Identify results and outcomes. From time to time, stop with the group and assess the strategy to see if it needs changing.
Conclusion; Ending FGM:
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a fact of life. While you may see it as repugnant, most of its practitioners do not, and they see it as a spiritual and moral requirement. Its removal is not universally held as a goal, especially in communities where it is practised.
You can contribute to its removal, using your mobilizer methods as provided on this site, but to do so requires detailed understanding of the community, a cadre of dedicated allies, and a strategy that is specific to the conditions and characteristics of the community. This document outlines a possible strategy sketch, but it should be seen as a general guide for you and your group to create an appropriate and specific strategy.
Health and Hygiene Training:
A Few Web References:
© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle