Africa spurns female circumcision

A program in Senegal, which has led 1,527 villages to stop circumcising girls, is becoming a regional model.

This tiny, sleepy village in Senegal's arid interior is part of a swelling movement against the long-held but controversial practice of female circumcision.

Back in 1997, 13 Senegalese villages publicly declared that they would no longer permit female circumcision, or female genital mutilation (FGM) as it's called by critics. In the eight years since, the number has grown to 1,527, representing 30 percent of Senegalese communities where FGM has been practiced. Dozens more villages are preparing to make similar declarations in the coming months.

Campaigners have tried for decades to bring an end to FGM. But their tactics of providing alternative employment to the circumcisers, introducing alternative rites of passage for girls, or demanding legislation to outlaw the practice have all failed to make a dent: an estimated 2 million girls in about 26 African countries are circumcised every year.

The sea-change in Senegal is being credited to a slow but steady program of human rights education that allows villagers to make up their own minds about whether to abandon female circumcision. Spearheaded by a local rights agency called Tostan, the program's success is proving so eye-catching that the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is endorsing it as a model.

"The Tostan approach is working because it's a holistic approach, and it works with communities," says Lalla Toure, UNICEF's regional adviser for women's health. "The starting point is not female genital mutilation; it's about rights, it's about health, it's about development. We think that's the best approach."

The program is being replicated with some success in Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali, and is currently being considered for one of the strongholds of FGM, Somalia, where nearly 100 percent of girls are circumcised.

Excision of all or part of the female sexual organs before puberty has long been considered a prerequisite for marriage among many of the pastoral cultures immediately south of the Sahara and in the Horn of Africa. Despite growing awareness of the health risks, which can affect childbirth, parents continue carrying out the practice because they fear their daughters won't otherwise be able to find a husband.

It's this same power of social conformity that is helping the campaign to end FGM in Senegal. As more villages publicly announce that they are abandoning the practice, Tostan says others begin realizing it may no longer be a marriage requirement, momentum builds, and the number of villages following suit snowballs.

"People are realizing that the social convention is changing," says Molly Melching, the Texas-born director of Tostan who has lived in Senegal for more than two decades.

According to Gerry Mackie, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the groundswell of opposition to FGM in Senegal is approaching a "tipping point." No one is willing to predict a date by which the practice will cease, but Mr. Mackie suggests that there are parallels with the practice of foot-binding in China, which went from widespread at the turn of the 20th century to nil within a generation.

Once Tostan commences its program of health, human rights education, and economic development in a village, it typically takes two to three years before citizens decide that they want to abandon FGM, says Ms. Melching. The public declarations the villages make, amid vibrant celebrations with music, dancing, and speeches from elders and prominent citizens, generally contain other statements about respect for women's rights and children's education.

The declarations are also coming from places where Tostan staff have never set foot. Enthusiastic villagers are taking it upon themselves to talk to neighboring villages, causing the movement to spread even more quickly.

Melching says that Tostan didn't set out trying to end FGM when it began its programs, nor is the eradication of FGM its only goal. Yet in some ways Tostan is becoming a victim of its own success. As the number of declarations swells, some Senegalese have come to see Tostan as simply an anti-FGM agency. Particularly in northern Senegal where resistance to ending the practice remains strong, some villages have protested and rioted to dissuade the organization from doing any sort of work.

Here in Ker Simbara there was similar - albeit less heated - initial refusal to listen to visiting women from nearby Malicounda Bambara, the village where the first anti-FGM declaration was made, says Imam Demba Diawara. But the public declarations soon made the issue of excision "the talk of the town," he says.

The debate that ensued was a big shift from the previously secretive approach to the practice, says Ramata Sow, who staffs the local clinic and nursery. "No one talked about the health troubles before - it's a difficult subject," she says.

Ker Simbara eventually declared in 1999 that its citizens would no longer practice female circumcision. Ms. Sow's family illustrates the transformation. She circumcised her eldest daughter, but her two youngest, Sadio, 13, and Nabou, 7, and her granddaughter Duma, 2, are not circumcised.

"I will never do it again," she declares. "Things have changed."

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