At the age of 12, Mamie Drammeh’s genitals were cut. Then she was forced to marry a 30-year-old man. The young Gambian woman eventually escaped the marriage, but she was soon forced into another relationship with an older man who promised to pay for her education in exchange for sex. Drammeh managed to finish school and leave the man, and in 2007 she found a job with the NGO Tostan, where she was given training on human rights.
Since then, Drammeh feels she has found her mission: ending the practice of female genital cutting.
“I will fight for every other girl to not have the same problems I have had,” says Drammeh.
UNICEF estimates that around 200 million women and girls have undergone female genital cutting (FGC), which involves the removal of the clitoris and can result in infection, infertility, sexual complications and even death. But over the past few years there have been huge strides in the abandonment of the practice, notably due to new community-led approaches.
Drammeh now works as a facilitator in Tostan’s Gambian branch. The organization, which is based in Senegal, covers most of West Africa. According to Tostan, more than 8,000 villages in West Africa have ended the practice of FGC as a result of its work, with a 69 percent reduction in Senegal between 2005 and 2010. Tostan founder Molly Melching says that in December 2016 alone, 360 villages publicly gave up the practice. Now, Gambia and Senegal are using Tostan’s approach, called the Community Empowerment Program, to continue promoting the abandonment of FGC.
The program was developed by Melching after she came to Senegal in 1974 as a student from the United States and quickly noticed that women, especially in rural communities, were failing school. She decided to provide education in a way that worked for them – orally, and in their own language.
The program started with basic education, then brought in human rights. In 1995, a module on women’s health was added.
“We had a session on female genital cutting, but it was in no way judgmental and in no way telling them to stop – it was just about the health consequences,” Melching says. “Women started realizing they had the right to speak out and voice their opinions […] and realized they had suffered consequences from female genital cutting. They became conscious of the fact that they could prevent that [for others].”
As a result, in 1997, the village of Malicounda Bambara became the first Senegalese village to publicly abandon FGC. But they experienced resistance from neighboring villages. The imam of Malicounda Bambara told Melching: “This is not the way you make changes in Africa; the way you make changes in Africa is to include the whole family,” meaning extended family and surrounding communities. So he and other villagers went out into the region and spread the word.
“It builds critical mass,” says Melching. If one community abandons FGC and a neighboring one does not, young women may find inter-marriage difficult. But if change can happen across communities, the effects are profound and lasting, she says.
Melching is careful to approach the topic by calling it female genital cutting, not mutilation, “because mutilation means cutting with the intention of harming.” She says those involved in the practice do not mean to harm their daughters; they cut them because they believe it is necessary to help the girls succeed in life. Promoting this sense of unbiased understanding is key to effecting social change, says Melching.
Tostan is not the only organization that believes in fighting FGC from within communities. Mar Jubero is a child protection specialist for UNICEF, which has created a joint program with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to tackle the practice.
“We, as Tostan, believe that you cannot just work with one family; you have to work with the community as a whole, because they all agree to this practice,” says Jubero. It’s therefore important that they all agree to stop this practice, she says.
UNICEF and UNFPA’s joint program aims to focus on three main areas: advocating for policy changes in the countries where FGC is practiced; providing support services to girls who are cut or at risk of being cut; and changing societal norms. For the latter, Jubero says the program has largely adopted the Tostan model.
UNICEF has also helped pioneer new approaches to reducing female genital cutting around the world. In Sudan, for example, it helped launch the Saleema campaign. The idea was to reframe the judgmental way female genital cutting was talked about and to encourage discussion about the practice through posters, stickers, songs and radio shows. The word saleema means “intact, as made by God.”
Another new approach comes from a group of researchers at the University of Zurich, who were investigating FGC in Sudan. They decided to try to change attitudes by making soap operas that subtly raised the topic. They used a psychological research technique on viewers called the “implicit association test,” which measures reaction times, and found that attitudes to girls who were uncut were markedly more positive.
All three of these programs aim to treat the subject of female genital cutting in a sensitive and objective way, and to allow change to come from within the communities themselves.
“It’s about respect,” says Melching. “You don’t change social norms by messaging and saying ‘Stop!’ It’s not about blame and shame. [Families] do it because they love their daughters, and they stop it because they love their daughters.”