Slowly, Africa rethinks a tradition
Some villages stop the practice of female genital mutilation as aid workers try persuasion, not coercion.
DOHO VILLAGE, ETHIOPIA
Villagers here are confused. "We are waiting to figure this out," admits Momina Hassan, a traditional circumciser who has spent her life performing ritual cuttings of the community's young girls. "We were very sure of some things that now confound us."Skip to next paragraph
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In Doho and surrounding villages, where Ms. Hassan lives and works, no one imagined there was any alternative to female genital mutilation (FGM), a millenniums-old practice in some 28 African and several Middle Eastern and Asian nations. The practice, they explain, is "tradition." Not the kind they understand, they admit, nor know the true origins of - but one they simply had to follow. Until now.
Three years ago, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Care International launched a pilot program in this region, as well as in Kenya and Sudan. The aim was to research the best ways of convincing different communities to stop FGM - a practice that affects some 130 million women and girls worldwide.
Care moved slowly, beginning with informal workshops and moving on to training sessions on health issues. "We would sit around the cow hides for days, chatting with the traditional circumcisers and religious leaders about pros and cons of various traditions," says Seid Lemma, one of the local facilitators. "In time, we touched on many taboo things."
"We could not come in and say - 'Wait! No! This is wrong and let's stop,'" says Asmelash Woldemariam, Care's Ethiopia reproductive-health project coordinator. "It does not work that way.... But we could begin a conversation."
Today, the entire district seems to be debating FGM. Several villages have postponed female-circumcision ceremonies to allow leaders to rule on the issue. In others cases, circumcisers are making "symbolic," less-invasive cuts.
Care estimates it has reached some 15,000 people with its Ethiopia project. Next month, the NGO will begin rolling out the programs in the next district.
The success of Care's project here stands in contrast to many earlier, more aggressive interventions on FGM. In the past, propelled by a deep sense that the practice was a flagrant human-rights abuse and a moral wrong, many interventions turned to the legal and criminal systems for help. The United Nations repeatedly called for an end to the practice, and nine African countries declared it illegal and punishable by jail terms.
But these approaches were often ineffective and even counterproductive, pushing the practice underground, charge observers. In Kenya, for example, when FGM was outlawed two years ago, mothers began circumcising daughters upon birth - so as to less easily be detected - putting them at further risk.
"What many of us are realizing is that the only way to make and maintain change is to use a participatory, educational approach," says Mr. Woldemariam. As such, his teams spent time with religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, trying to trace the origins of the practice in either the Koran or the Bible, where none were found. Facilitators listened as women here admitted the problems with the practice, and prodded them to discuss the implications of all this information. "The last thing we want to do," says Woldemariam, "is condescend."