How North-South cooperation is bringing us closer to a world without FGM

In recent years, it has become evident that international cooperation is important in promoting inclusive and sustainable development, especially in view of achieving internationally agreed upon development agendas.

African countries recognize the importance of these partnerships for enhancing and consolidating the growth of the continent. As such, many African states have benefitted from the traditional North-South cooperation, through the sharing of experiences, technical assistance as well as cooperation on the part of other developing and emerging countries. 

It’s along such lines that the anti-FGM campaign has been able to pick up momentum after years of lip service. Whereas the campaign against FGM has had a long history, it has for a long time been confined to board rooms and workshops with little by way of targeted grassroots campaigns. For instance as recent as 2010 Kenya did not have an official policy addressing FGM and relied upon Presidential decrees. However with the anti-FGM policy put in place in 2011, there’s been considerable investment of resources and strategies from the North.

How did this happen? A number of factors have been combined to bring about the necessary north-south cooperation. For instance in the south, Kenya like many African countries had for years grossly underfunded many women centered development priorities. The announcement of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010 changed the game. This supreme law called for an end to harmful cultural practices and was quickly followed by the enactment of the Anti FGM Act. The legislation provided for an institution - The Anti-FGM Board - with the mandate to undertake public education on the dangers and legal consequences of carrying out the practice, but which unfortunately remained underfunded to meet the demand of its mandate.

In the north, the international immigration crisis brought FGM to the doorstep of the developed north. Waves of migrants from nations that practice FGM began arriving and settling and with it brought their deep-rooted cultural practices such as FGM. Whereas the developed north had hitherto been known to only condemn the practice, the changing dynamics required a more proactive approach both home and abroad.

Winds of change

It is in this context that a new impetus to fund anti-FGM work at the grassroots by organizations based in the north came about. The Guardian Media UK launched an EndFGM Campaign Academy 2015, in some of the FGM affected Africa countries (Kenya, The Gambia and Nigeria). The Guardian pioneered in identifying and training of activists on the use of both new and traditional media to end FGM. The use of media has been a powerful tool in influencing perceptions and educating people about the realities of FGM. The media has also broadened the platform for engagement, and the reach and visibility of anti-FGM efforts. The use of activists has built upon young people who are playing a leadership role in the community, and have what it takes to be future opinion leaders and shapers.

Similarly, The Girl Generation, an Africa led global movement aimed at ending FGM within a generation, focuses on building a critical mass for change which helps unlock regional, national and international commitments to increase resources that can sustain and scale up efforts to end the practice. Among its approaches is the use of ambassadors, youth networks and social change communication (transforming social norms underpinning the practice of FGM) which has a trickle down effect of reaching practicing communities. The use of networks has created much needed synergy and momentum required in the campaign to end FGM, while the use of ambassadors has built upon individuals who have scaled up FGM campaign to national and global attention.

Alternative rite of passage ceremony with Masaai community [Credit: AMREF]

Alternative rite of passage ceremony with Masaai community [Credit: AMREF]

Among other notable strategies include Alternative rites of Passage (ARPs) spearheaded by AMREF Health, in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. ARPs allows a girl to safely transition to womanhood without undergoing the emotional and physical risk of FGM whilst preserving a communities’ culture. ARP has been adopted by the United Nations as a model of eradicating FGM.

Another approach which has had significant impact is Tostan's human rights Community Empowerment Program that allows community members to draw their own conclusions about FGM and lead their own movements for change. This is operating in Djibouti, Mali, Guinea, Senegal, Somalia, The Gambia, and Mauritania. The program focuses on community public declarations which are critical in the process for abandonment and necessary for building critical mass, eventually leading FGM to becoming a thing of the past. Similarly, Not in My Name, a Sierra Leonean coalition of leading national and international activists,  are calling for the rights of all women and girls in Sierra Leone to be protected and promoted - including the immediate enactment and enforcement of a ban on FGM.

Elsewhere, 28TooMany is consistently working on research around Africa where FGM is practiced (28 countries + 28 too many) and across the diaspora. They also advocate for the global eradication of FGM and work closely with other organizations in the violence against women sector. Research and data is a crucial element that tactically guides anti-FGM strategies and campaigns.

A group of women reviewing the human rights images that are the basis of Tostan's Community Empowerment Program. [Credit: Tostan}

A group of women reviewing the human rights images that are the basis of Tostan's Community Empowerment Program. [Credit: Tostan}

UNICEF/UNFPA’s joint program accelerates abandonment in Africa and Arab countries where it works by using a human rights- based and culturally sensitive approach. The program also supports health and protective services for those affected. Initiated in 2007, the joint program aims at strengthening national policies/legislation, training health practitioners on FGM response and care, public declarations of abandonment by communities and declarations by both religious and traditional leaders disowning any religious requirement of FGM.

Together with Member States, the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted resolution 67/146: Intensifying Global Efforts for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilations. Co- sponsored by 150 countries, the resolution underscored the fact that the practice of FGM/C is a violation of the human rights of women and girls and called for stronger global efforts to end it.  

FGM sometimes threatens the lives of girls and women, thereby violating their human rights to life, liberty, and security of the person. Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa explicitly recognize that practices harmful to women such as FGM are violations of human rights.

Nice Nailentei Leng’ete (Left)- Amref Ambassador with Laura Boldrini (Right) handshaking during a private meeting in Italy. [Photo Credit: Nice Leng’ete]

Nice Nailentei Leng’ete (Left)- Amref Ambassador with Laura Boldrini (Right) handshaking during a private meeting in Italy. [Photo Credit: Nice Leng’ete]

Why does North-South cooperation work?

What these efforts have in common is the support in terms of resources and financing that is coming from the north, with campaigns being led by local activists many of whom are beginning to gain the attention for their efforts in eradicating FGM in their countries

The North-South cooperation has resulted in accelerated efforts to end FGM evident in the recent ban of FGM in countries like Nigeria and The Gambia.  A drop in FGM overall statistics in some countries, Public Community declarations are some of the tangible results that can be recorded. Non tangible results can be quantified in the increased reporting of FGM/C cases, a surge in involvement of people/institutions in Anti-FGM Campaigns, increased awareness, launch of regional campaigns such as the Saleema Campaign in Sudan and the He For She campaign.

One of the biggest setbacks in eliminating FGM is medicalization of the practice. Currently more than 18% of all FGM is performed by healthcare providers and the disturbing trend is only increasing.  Medicalization of FGM wrongfully legitimates the procedures and can contribute to the damaging perception that FGM is right. In effect, some governments have passed bills that include revoking of licenses by doctors and nurses that perform FGM, Kenya being a good example. This is an important area that needs further work.

The practice of FGM, no matter who carries it out, still represent a major human rights violations. These advancements in cooperation between the North and South are really positive – but on Zero Tolerance for FGM Day we must remember that 3 million women and girls still undergo FGM every year. We must continue to scale up efforts, and explore new innovations to work towards a day where we can truly say there is zero FGM.