Five years ago, more than three million girls each year were at risk of undergoing genital cutting - part of a complex mix of norms and societal expectations. Today, due to growing populations and the fact that ever more countries are admitting to girls being cut, many more girls are at risk.
But as head of a pioneering organization working to end FGC, I can still say that tremendous global progress has been made. That’s because millions more people are now aware that the problem exists, communities themselves are becoming more engaged and FGC is on the global development agenda. At the Orchid Project, we have always believed that systemic action needs to take place at every different level: from the girl at the heart of the issue, through to her family and community, then the local, regional, national and global levels. For the first time, we are beginning to see the different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle falling into place.
Years of sustained work by activists from around the world ensured that female genital cutting (FGC) landed firmly on the world stage last September, when the United Nations agreed on 17 Global Goals for Sustainable Development. Goal Five, achieving gender equality by 2030, has as a target the “elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.”
This recognition and formalization into an international framework is long overdue, given the sheer scale and impact of FGC on millions of girls and women globally. It presents us with an unprecedented opportunity to work at the community, local, national, regional and global level to bring about an end to the practice within the next generation.
And given the extent, scale and impacts of the practice, this will not be a moment too soon. The impacts of FGC are astounding; it can cause immediate and lifelong physical, psychological and sexual trauma, as well as difficulties during intercourse, menstruation and childbirth. It reflects deep cultural discrimination against women and girls.
UNICEF counts at least 200 million girls and women alive today who have gone through FGC. However, these figures are only for the 30 countries where there is data. There are at least another 15 countries, mainly in the Middle East and Asia, where the practice continues, but the girls affected are not counted. This is one example of where the evidence base needs to be strengthened – with the absence of such basic data, it can be almost impossible to make a credible case.
In spite of legislation, education campaigns and increased awareness, in many communities, the rate of ending the practice is slow. People give many reasons for continuing the practice. Some defenders may argue that undergoing FGC means becoming a “whole woman,” being “clean,” being “sexually modest” or a “documented virgin” in societies where these are prerequisites for a girl’s social acceptance. In most communities, no one will associate with an uncut girl, and she cannot get married. All of these beliefs serve to hold the practice in place.
Extensive research in the mid 1990’s in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, and Senegal provided insight into sociocultural and religious underpinnings of FGC and helped identify approaches that, over time, have contributed to individual and community decisions to abandon the practice.
Recently, donors and other partners have made stronger commitments to help underscore their belief that FGC needs to end. One of these donors is the UK’s Department for International Development, which awarded the Population Council, along with a consortium of other members, a five-year research contract to help address some of the gaps in evidence.
This new research project has four tasks. First is to map FGC in nine countries, by examining existing data on when, where and why it prevails. Having more detailed knowledge at a country specific level helps with programming and successful interventions.
As its second task, the Population Council’s research programmes will evaluate existing approaches to ending FGC. Most are pilot programmes or being studied as part of larger efforts on girls’ education or health care. Few have been assessed for the information decision-makers need - like validity, successful theories or cost-effectiveness.
Research like this has already supported the insight that cutting a girl is not an individual decision; it is a society’s chosen path for girls to an acceptable life. Parents and community leaders, like elders everywhere, want their girls to thrive and be happy and safe, and they believe that undergoing FGC will contribute to this. But further research can find ways of working that can help with the complexity of the issue and crucially, with finding ways to help spread success more widely.
As an example, the work by Tostan, Orchid’s strategic partner, in six West African countries encourages communities to dialogue about human rights to health, to safety, to well-being. Once community members see gender issues more broadly, without blame or criticism, communities recognise FGC as a harmful social norm, one that was adopted and can be abandoned. And more than 7,350 communities have decided to do just that.
Previous evaluations by the Population Council of Tostan’s groundbreaking community empowerment programmes in Senegal and Burkina Faso have informed decisions by UN organizations to recommend this model as a best practice for eliminating FGC.
Thirdly, researchers will examine the way existing social norms relate to FGC, and how abandoning the practice affects those norms. And finally, the project will develop and test new research methods. The Population Council has played a remarkable role over the last two decades and its commitment to strengthening research methods on FGC is to be applauded. In particular, its work on expanding the capacity of national organizations and individuals to implement evidence-based interventions and undertake high-quality research, monitoring, and evaluation on FGC is invaluable.
The provision of a reliable body of evidence on what does and doesn’t work is one missing piece of the jigsaw. With increased work at community level, better ownership by governments of national action plans, strengthened civil society voices and now, a global framework to help with commitments and accountability, we can begin to see how we can all play our part to end FGC within the next generation.
Orchid Project uses non-directive human rights led education to work with partners and to communicate and advocate to accelerate an end to female genital cutting.