The Gambia recently passed a national law banning FGC; their neighbors in Senegal have had a similar law in place since 1999. With the intent of learning from the Senegalese experience with female genital cutting (FGC) and the law, as well as with grassroots strategies to reinforce the abandonment movement, UNFPA and UNICEF Gambia organized a study tour from April 27 to May 4 with their Senegalese partners across the government and NGO community. Tostan happily hosted this Gambian delegation at the Tostan Training Center (TTC) and in our partner community, Keur Simbara.
The objectives of this week-long tour were focused on exchange and shared experiences, especially in relation to social mobilization activities. The delegates gained context from legislative experts about the process that led to the legal FGC ban in Senegal, but also from key actors on the ground who have been able to engage religious leaders and scholars in efforts to abandon FGC. As an important look to the future, they also discussed next steps, such as creating and implementing an effective monitoring and evaluation system to track the number of communities who choose to abandon FGC—and therefore to determine how much progress still needs to be made.
As FGC is firmly rooted in long-held social norms and attitudes, there can be many challenges when addressing this harmful practice. For example, despite a law being passed in both Senegal and The Gambia, application of the law can be slow—in Senegal there are only eleven reported cases, even though many more girls than this have been cut. Likewise, many families choose to evade the law and continue cutting their girls by crossing to the nearest country where FGC is still legal. FGC is not adequately and universally integrated in policies, programs and institutions, so efforts and communication around the subject can be disjointed. Even when programs that address FGC in a respectful and holistic way—such as Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP)—are well-received and requested in new regions, there is not always sufficient funding to support expansion. There is also a “culture of silence” in most communities regarding this taboo tradition, so open dialogue is often subdued, therefore inhibiting rapid social change.
Challenges aside, the delegates found many possible solutions for the successful abandonment of FGC in West Africa (and beyond). For example, in Senegal, FGC prevalence rates are much higher among certain ethnic groups in particular regions, including those that border The Gambia, so targeting these areas with awareness raising campaigns and radio shows that introduce discussions around FGC can be highly effective. Building partnerships across sectors—various government ministries, religious leaders, health professionals, local authorities, ex-cutters, youth—can foster stronger advocacy, reproductive health knowledge, and enforcement of the law. By translating the law and other resources into local languages, a larger portion of the population will be aware of and be able to discuss FGC in a national context. Involving men—the principle decision-makers in most households—and organizing cross-border activities will be key in increasing momentum as FGC abandonment in The Gambia advances.
During their time at the TTC, the visiting delegation participated in a mock session of the CEP. The session discussed the different forms of violence and ways to resolve violent situations, all the while highlighting the importance of traditional means of expression—poetry, song, dance, skits—as ways to address sensitive topics. The delegation came to the conclusion that it would be useful for members of their partner institutions to attend a TTC training to hone their skills in community empowerment and awareness-raising in an effort to improve their respective FGC campaigns and programs.
While the criminalization of FGC is not an all-encompassing solution to the problems posed by high FGC rates, it can contribute to the ultimate abandonment of this harmful practice. This cross-national learning experience between The Gambia and Senegal is a promising symbol of collaboration and steadfast commitment to improving the lives of girls, future mothers, and entire communities now and in the future.
With contributions from Edrisa Keita, Assistant National Coordinator of Tostan Gambia