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Alternatives to Female Genital Mutilation in Western Africa

 Lillian Mitchell, lvmitch@stanford.edu
Chibuzo Eke, cueke@stanford.edu

“FGM is best understood not as an isolated phenomenon but rather as the tip of the iceberg of asymmetrical gender relations.”

Emanuela Finke


Brief History of Female Genital Mutilation   

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is an ancient practice, mentioned by Herodotus and predating Islam and Christianity (Elchalal et al.). It carries with it immense social meaning and serves as proof of maturity, virginity, and membership in the community. In addition, it complies with traditional beliefs about the roles and characteristics of women in the community. This practice is often kept secret and hidden in communities, which can make the practice difficult to study and even more challenging to change. In some places, it is a cultural practice demanding secrecy, is performed only by women, or is looked down upon by some members of the community. Most importantly, secrecy is not correlated with rarity, but rather with cultural significance.

Motivations for female genital mutilation are as varied as the people who practice it, although there are certainly some overarching themes and convictions. Female genital mutilation is often associated with an entry into womanhood. The more extreme variations of the practice are performed on younger girls, while less invasive types of FGM are performed on girls well into their teenage years. In most places, it is seen as a necessary step before marriage. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, women and girls who have undergone ceremonial cutting gain status in their communities – something that is otherwise quite difficult to come across (Finke). Female genital mutilation provides social status to a group of people – poor, rural women – who have no other options in their communities. They have limited rights, resources, education, social mobility, or community support for change. The traditions that have been practiced for thousands of years are essential to their culture; therefore, challenges to these practices are rarely successful.

In Senegal, particularly in Wolof-speaking areas, FGM is seen as a critical component of female identity, and in some cases, even adult women who marry into the community feel intense pressure to be "circumcised" (Shell-Duncan and Herniund). Most importantly, FGM is a community norm and is generally not viewed as an individual decision.


Arguments against FGM

Many reasons are often cited for why FGM should be banned. These reasons include the fact that this procedure is often done in unsanitary conditions, the women who perform this procedure are often unskilled and women who undergo this procedure are at risk of developing serious infections and complications (Gehring 37).  However, the most compelling argument against FGM is that most women who agree to the procedure do so under heavy pressure and influence from people in their community. For many women in societies that practice FGM, refusal to participate means not being able to be married and never having any real social status in their communities(37-38). Since marriage means economic stability for many women, these women would be essentially cut off from any real means of supporting themselves (39). Given the severe consequences that women may face if they refuse to participate in the practice, it can be hardly deemed a clear choice that women make. Rather, it is a survival tactic that women employ to ensure the financial future of themselves and their family (37-43).


The Role of Choice and Autonomy

In her book Sex, Culture and Justice, Claire Chambers argues that traditional liberalist arguments are insufficient in presenting convincing arguments for the elimination of FGM. She states that “Political liberalism is peculiarly ill-equipped to deal with injustices resulting from culture and choice because it abandons significant areas of justice to determination by individual choice.” (160). Chambers instead proposes an alternative framework for dealing with culturally embedded injustices. She distinguishes two forms of autonomy, calling them first-order and second-order autonomy.  A person is first order autonomous if she critically examines rules and norms and follows only those that she endorses. Second-order autonomy applies to the way that one comes to lead a particular way of life. A person is second-order autonomous if she chooses or endorses the overall conception of the good that she follows.  In other words, the distinction between the two forms of autonomy is that in the former an individual makes choices based on the rules that she has set, whereas in the latter, an individual makes choices within strong social constraints.

In the communities where FGM is practiced, many of the women are second order-autonomous, but have very little to no first order autonomy. Their decision to undergo the operation is heavily influenced by family, friends and the traditions that govern their societies. Such is the case in Gambia, where an estimated 60% of girls and women undergo the practice. (Gambia 5). The practice is deeply rooted in the cultural and traditional life of the Gambian population and cuts across ethnic lines, geographical boundaries, religious affiliation and educational and economic status (6).  For these girls and women, FGM is the norm and not participating is often inconceivable. Those that seemingly consent to the procedure do so under heavy influence and pressure from the community.


A Closer Look: Autonomy in Gambia

Some of the most common reasons stated for the continuance of FGM in Gambia are identical to reasons offered in other participating countries. They include chastity and avoiding shame, rite of passage, marriageability and social standing (10). Chastity and modesty are required of women so as to avoid bringing shame to their family (9).  The expectation is that a woman remains a virgin until her wedding night.

Additionally, the procedure can serve as a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood to womanhood. The woman often learns about the values and attitudes that her community holds and is then expected to incorporate those beliefs into her role as a mother, wife and home manager (9).  In many cases, this procedure is the only way that a woman is able to be married. Women, who come from communities that do not practice the procedure and are married to a man from a community that does practice, may feel pressured to appease their husbands and new in-laws by undergoing the procedure (10). Lastly, Gambian women who have undergone the procedure are distinguished from those who have not. Those who have, tend to regard themselves as superior to those who have not (10).

  Studies in The Gambia have explored the process of decision-making in FGM and have highlighted the centrality of the nuclear family and/or the extended family (12). Analyzing the decision to undergo FGM in the framework of the two types of autonomy, provides a more comprehensive perspective on the factors that govern a woman’s decision ---or lack thereof. Simply determining whether or not the woman consents to the procedure raises complex questions of what is the definition of “choice” and whether or not choice within limited constraints is really a choice.  First order and second order autonomy are also useful in determining issues of justice. Liberalist ideology focuses on the premise that if and when an individual is allowed to make a choice for herself, one can conclude that this is justice. This then raises an interesting question that if legal consent was obtained from every woman that underwent the procedure, can FGM now be classified as a just practice? The liberalist argument makes it difficult to argue that the practice is still unjust, but the feminist approach of autonomy adds necessary nuances to the discussion. It allows for examination of the degree of autonomy an individual had in making a particular decision.  This classification of autonomy is necessary, not because one particular type of autonomy is better than the other, but simply because the two types exist.  Both types are needed to identify to what degree a person is free to make decisions about her life free from coercion from others.

Claire Chambers argues that in cases like the above, the state should intervene for the benefit of the girls and women involved.  She argues that although an individual’s right to make a decision should always be respected, it is a different matter if the decision is based on social norms (Chambers 196). Since the state has an obligation to protect the rights of its individuals, then it should intervene to protect the rights of girls and women even if a right infringement is veiled under what can be perceived to be the individual’s decision.  Social norms that are unjust and unequal are infringements on the women’s right to live autonomous lives.  This is the major problem with FGM and the reason why it should be completely eliminated.  Other commonly cited problems with FGM like lack of cleanliness, amount of pain the girls experience and high risk of infections are important to consider, but fail to provide sound arguments for its elimination.  In the United States, where the procedure can be done in a clean environment with little amount of pain or risk of infection, the practice is outlawed. Therefore, a safe assumption is that these three factors are not reason enough for a practice to be deemed acceptable.


Successful Interventions: Tostan in Senegal

            Effective programs that aim to end this practice, should simultaneously strive to increase the amount of autonomy that the affected women have on their own lives and bodies. Tostan, a Senegal-based organization, serves as an excellent model of a successful intervention to stop FGM. While not initially intended to address FGM, the Tostan program has proven to be successful in facilitating communities to abandon FGM and often to replace FGM with an alternative rite of passage. Tostan (meaning “breakthrough” in the Wolof language), which began in 1997, has expanded to work in thousands of villages over the past ten years, primarily in Senegal, the Gambia, and Ethiopia. Tostan’s framework is an 18-month community education program that addresses hygiene, women’s health, human rights, and problem solving.

Initially, only women were included in this education program, but Tostan found that the men in the community felt excluded from the program and were more supportive of the program’s efforts if they, too, were able to attend the classes. The level of approval of FGM by the husbands was critical in determining whether or not daughters were cut, even if their mothers had been in the Tostan program (Diop et al., 22). The flexibility of the program to include men and recognize their important role in family and community decision-making is a key characteristic of the Tostan program.

In one study of TOSTAN methods, the number of women who believed that FGM was a “necessity” was more than halved after completion of the program (Diop et al., 19). Similarly, knowledge about the health consequences of FGM increased in participating members and in community members who were not in the program – people were talking about the program outside of the classes. (Diop et al., 20). The educational component of Tostan is critical to its success in eliminating FGM, but is also essential to the program on a wider scale. Participants who feel as though they actually gain useful knowledge from the program are more inclined to continue attending classes and apply their new knowledge and skills to problems they see in their own community – as in the case of FGM (Mohamud et al., 78).

The Tostan program’s success in facilitating the abandonment of FGM in African – and particularly Senegalese – villages hinges on the important distinction of autonomy, and looks to the power of the community rather than to the choices of individuals.

            Because female genital mutilation is so closely linked with traditions and beliefs about marriage and the role of women in society, replacement rites of passage are a worthy avenue to explore in attempts to move away from FGM. There are two possibilities for desired outcomes: one, for communities to abandon female cutting altogether, and two, for communities to change to a less destructive form of cutting, and then perhaps to continue along that path towards ending the practice. Alternative rites of passage, when created in cooperation with the communities involved, can substitute for the proof of maturity and marital eligibility that the scars of female genital mutilation provide.

One particular challenge of working to reduce female genital mutilation is the need to tailor interventions very specifically to the communities in which FGM is practiced. Because it is an ancient and valued custom, practices are often very specific to communities or ethnic groups. They have changed over the generations and are deeply rooted in the culture. In many places, older women who have undergone FGM are the strongest proponents of continuing the practice. In this light, it is critical to address the social needs of the community and to involve them in any efforts to change their practices.



 Lessons for Future Interventions

Tostan is successful, according to a USAID-funded evaluation, because it encourages social change through the community system that is already in place in African villages. Most importantly, the evaluation states, Tostan facilitates group-based decisions. Rather than encouraging individual women or families to abandon FGM, TOSTAN works with whole villages, and eventually includes hundreds of villages in public declarations that validate social change as a community decision and outcome (Diop et al, 35). At these declarations, village leaders make a commitment on behalf of their communities, but the event is not solely political. Girls from communities speak about their perceptions on remaining uncircumcised, and people celebrate the continued marriage ties between villages.

These public declarations by geographic clusters of tens of villages serve to validate the decision that the community has made, hold the villages accountable to their neighbors to truly abandon FGM, and encourage surrounding villages to join the movement. The inter-village cooperation to abandon FGM is critical because so many local villages intermarry. If the girls from a village are not acceptable to the surrounding villages, then long-standing bonds between the communities are broken. As a result, consensus between village leaders to abandon FGM in a coordinated effort is essential to the success of the intervention (Tostan, 12). If only one village stopped performing FGM, the surrounding communities could simply exclude them from marriages rather than changing their practice of FGM, and eventually the lone village will lose economic ties in the area. Clearly, local leaders would not support a situation with such an outcome.

The success of the Tostan program can certainly be applied to other efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation – or any other social change that needs to happen on a community level. The program’s flexibility, emphasis on building the skills and knowledge necessary to make change, and culmination in a public declaration of a community decision all contribute directly to the sustainability of the decisions made. The program’s initial creation in Senegal and the close ties with the communities in which Tostan works ensure that the program speaks to the needs and beliefs of participants. Finally, the emphasis on community choice above all else contributes to the success in abandoning female genital cutting. The program has been much more effective at increasing the second order autonomy of girls and women, but has not completely neglected their first order-autonomy. Introducing alternative rites of passage, allows for greater freedom in the way the girls and women live their lives.  This small triumph should be held as a benchmark for both individual and community human rights. 

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