Fomba Fatimata Niambali, a member of Mali’s parliament, blogs on progress to stop Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in West Africa and why organisations such as Plan International and communities must be involved in the fight.
3 February 2015: Over the past 10 years, many disasters have occurred in West Africa. For most, responses took place and issues were resolved.
However, a big disaster is still happening and with unimaginable consequences among a vulnerable population: our daughters.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a common practice in many countries in West Africa, including mine. It can have devastating consequences on victims, including life-long psychological and physical trauma.
Numbers are still high, despite the heartbreaking stories shared by girls and women who have undergone FGM.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about a girl who suffered FGM.
“I cannot explain the feeling of terror that runs through the mind of an excised girl when thinking of the upcoming wedding. On the day of their wedding, brides undergo another painful ‘surgery’ to reverse the infibulation to allow consummation of marriage,” she said.
“In most cases, intervention is done by a traditional practitioner without any anaesthesia or little care for hygiene. Sometimes it is performed on the floor in the bathroom. It is only after completing this procedure that an excised girl is considered ‘free’. She usually has her first sexual experience the same night.”
How far have we gone?
In 2014, the prevalenceof FGM in Mali was 85% for women aged 15 to 49 and 84% of girls from 0 to 14 . When you read other research reports, for instance, in Guinea-Bissau, 94.5% of girls and women have undergone FGM in the region of Gabu and 92.8% in Bafata region. In Sierra Leone the rate is of 88.6%.
As Chair of the Parliamentary Network Against Violence Against Women and Girls, I wonder: “How far have we gone?"
For me, figures should be disaggregated to allow a better reading of the current situation. It would be critical to see which girls and generations are the most affected.
If in a given figure less than a quarter represents girls aged between 5-12, it would probably mean that efforts are ongoing and huge change has been made over the last 15 years. These efforts must continue until we approach zero cases.
Yet, much of this is about overcoming traditional beliefs. It might seem a big challenge, but it is possible.
Projects are often implemented and they run from 3 to 5 years, which does not give much time to see results. Figures are quantitative, so what about the quality, the change of minds?
Reaching across generations
Only the transfer of awareness from one generation to another will allow the practice to be questioned and eventually stopped.
Many issues have been raised such as health, but communities have turned to more hygienic methods.
People try to avoid social stigma, and that is where suggestions must be made.
A mother will prefer to have her daughter undergo FGM in a safe, sterile environment so she will find a husband, to ensure she is successful in business and to stop her from being a laughingstock in the community.
The challenge here is to understand and take into account the way communities who practice FGM works, thinks and interacts. A methodology that ensures the whole community is responsive to our messages is the winning one.
Again, laws are not enough, as it is more to do with communities themselves.
A new approach
The approach used by our partners for development, such as child rights organisation Plan International, seems to be working.
The ‘child to child’ and ‘child to parent’ approach 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, such as acting, drawing, poetry, songs.
It has helped many girls express themselves in public and share their experiences without fear and embarrassment.
It is important that communities are involved from the start to avoid creating new stigmatised groups among them, while children, women, traditional practitioners, traditional and religious leaders, health workers, authorities, teachers, local organisations, non-governmental organisations and policy makers should take part in the fight against FGM.
Patience and real commitment is essential if we are to significantly reduce FGM cases. The road is still long, but there must be a willingness to change and it must begin now. Helping our girls to escape FGM must be a priority.
Therefore, I call on all stakeholders and partners to continue to raise awareness throughout communities.
We need to ensure the views of communities are heard too and we can only get them to listen to us and, in turn, change their behaviour if we understand their logic. For that, we need tact, time and patience.
Of course, young people have their part to play in the fight against FGM too and we must empower them to come up with their own suggestions and ideas. Our role is to support them, so we ensure a positive change is made for our girls.
International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation** is marked on 6 February each year.
* Facts from WHO
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