7 ways to end FGM
Lessons from Mali
They say it takes a village to raise a child - but conversations with a community in Mali suggest it will take family, community and government support to end female genital mutilation (FGM) for good.
Grandparents, mothers, fathers and mother-in-laws all have their role to play, as do religious leaders who can help dispel the myth that FGM is a religious necessity.
In Mali, 76% of girls up to the age of 14 have undergone female genital cutting, compared to 83% of 15 to 49-year-olds - suggesting a declining trend. However, the practice has not yet officially been outlawed by the government.
Here are 7 lessons from a community Plan International is working with in Mali on how to end this harmful custom for good.
1. Challenge the discriminatory reasons FGM is practised
Among the discriminatory reasons FGM is practised is a perceived need to control female sexuality.
“The purpose of female genital cutting is to ensure that a girl behaves properly, saves her virginity until she gets married and then stays faithful to her husband.” says Alima, 70.
“Sometimes, when my husband isn’t home, I’ll sit with my neighbours and we’ll discuss all kinds of things. They think the same way as me about cutting.” daughter-in-law Fatoumata, 25, explains.
"I too think it should be stopped." says Alima. "Even if nobody listens to you and just carries on, you have to stand firm and maintain the dialogue. Such an ingrained custom can only be changed through perseverance.”
2. Change traditions - with the support of older generations
“In the past, grandmothers used to tell fairy tales and fables containing concealed life lessons. But nowadays children just don’t want to know. Similarly, grandmothers were the ones who provided sexual education. We’ve lost that role too, but I think it should be reinstated.” says Ma, 65 (pictured below).
“We grandmothers have the time to keep an eye on things. If a granddaughter goes out and comes home late, her grandmother would be able to tell by the twinkle in her eye if she’s fallen in love. Children are often more inclined to tell something to their grandmother rather than their mother.”
3. Educate girls on their right to decide what happens to their body
Sanaba, 24, was one of the last girls in her family to be cut. She talks to friends from her neighbourhood who will help decide on their daughters' futures.
“Some of them want to cling to this tradition, even though they are aware of the consequences."
Her mother, Fatoumata adds: "I don’t think it’s normal for a woman not to enjoy sex."
“More and more children are going to school and learning to think for themselves," says Sanaba. "No child who is well informed and able to stand up for himself or herself wants the practice of genital cutting to continue. I think women of my age should support teenage girls.”
4. Speak out about the risks and realities of FGM
FGM has lasting physical and mental consequences that need to be discussed so that girls and women no longer have to suffer in silence.
“M’Pène is 4 now, but we decided when she was born that we didn’t want her to be cut. That’s because I’d seen photos and a video of a girl’s cutting. My husband agrees with me. He’s a member of the village council, as a medical advisor, so he knows what’s involved. He watches a lot on TV about it and listens to the radio,” says Korotoumou, 30.
“This is the first time that my mother-in-law and I have discussed cutting. The opinion of a girl’s grandmother is crucial. I’m sure that if grandmothers were to see these images, they too would want to stop cutting. We’ll find a solution to the issue of cutting. And daring to talk about it is the first step.”
5. Spread understanding that religion does not demand FGM
“People think that Islam advocates cutting to ensure that a girl stays virtuous and pure. I tell them that I lost my own daughter to female genital cutting and that it’s a practice that must be stopped because of all the problems it causes,” says Nega, 48, an Imam in his village.
“My assistant said to me recently, “If I didn’t know your story, I’d still preach that in the name of our religion, the tradition of cutting should be continued.’
“People don’t seem to be able to distinguish between religion and traditional practices. They tend to see them as one and the same thing.”
6. Tackle the secrecy that allows cutting to continue
“In the old days, genital cutting was an initiation rite for girls, to prepare them for their future. The whole community would participate. But nowadays it’s become more controversial and it usually takes place discreetly at home. And the girls who are cut are getting younger and younger. This is because the younger a girl is, the less likely she’ll be to discuss it with her friends,” says Fatoumata.
Rokia, a grandmother of 92, says the practice is in steady decline: “Here in the village, there are no more cutting ceremonies. People do occasionally have their daughters cut, but they take them to neighbouring villages. Or they’ll have the cutter come in secrecy, because they know that people will gossip.”
7. Keep pushing for FGM to be banned
Djaminatou, a village educator trained by Plan International suggests that grassroots support for an end to FGM will lead to an official ban.
"Cutting, is a violation of children’s rights: the right to physical integrity, the right to good health and the freedom to make your own choices. It even violates a child’s right to be educated. If the wound becomes infected because the cutter uses an unsterilised knife, for example, the girl will fall ill and be unable to attend school.
“My biggest challenge in the struggle against female genital cutting is the passing of legislation that will outlaw it. Then, and only then, will we be able to put an end to FGM. But it will take a lot of lobbying and advocating, at all levels: in government, in parliament, and in villages and communities.”
As well as the need for legislative change, it's essential that the traditional attitudes and social norms that allow FGM to continue are tackled so that open honest discussions about the risks and consequences of FGM may happen.