Senegal Moves Toward Ending Female Circumcision

Illustration for article titled Senegal Moves Toward Ending Female Circumcision

For years human rights organizations have been working to put an end to the tradition of cutting off a girl's clitoris, which an estimated 92 million African women and girls have been subjected to. Particularly rapid progress is being made in Senegal, thanks to a local movement that addresses the problem with sensitivity to cultural practicies.

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After learning about the horrible consequences of female circumcision, which include lifelong pain, health problems, and sometimes even death, Western groups labeled it barbaric and started pushing to end the practice which has existed for generations. They've had limited success and according to the New York Times, the U.N. hasn't even raised half of what it needed for programs that address the issue.

In the past 15 years, the Senegalese group Tostan, or "breakthrough," has succeeded where other international organizations have failed, with most of the nation's villages where genital cutting was common pledging to stop it. The organization was formed 20 years ago by Molly Melching, an educator from Illinois, Demba Diawara, an imam from Senegal, and Gerry Mackie, an associate professor at the University of California, San Diego. Eventually the three found each other through their work to stop genital cutting, and they determined that rather than targeting individual towns, villages whose young people intermarried should be targeted and pushed to abandoned the practice at the same time. They also took into account that while genital cutting harms girls, like the old practice of Chinese foot binding, parents do it out of love for their daughters. Unlike foreign programs, Tostan explains the consequences of the practice without using the term "female genital mutilation," which some find offensive.

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Now more than 5,000 Senegalese villages have ended the practice. Unfortunately, since Tostan's two to three-year programs run about $21,000 per village, it's too expensive to adopt in every area where female circumcision is still practiced. However, it still provides a useful example of the importance of cultural understanding in the fight to ending genital cutting.

Senegal Curbs a Bloody Rite for Girls and Women [NYT]

Image via creativedoxfoto/Shutterstock.

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DISCUSSION

Kudos to Jez and the NYT for reporting on this kind of movement against FGM. When I lived in Tanzania, I eventually grew weary at having conversations about the practice, because legal obstructions to female circumcision and Western moralizing do absolutely nothing but make people angry and drive the practice more underground. One of my professors, a Kenyan Maasai, had been working on a project very similar to this — working small-scale and being sensitive to cultural practices in order to transition the thinking that gave rise to the practices, rather than ban or condemn it. At the time, they weren't getting much notice for what they were doing. Hopefully publicizing more efforts like this will help us think, as Westerners, rationally and empathetically about cultural practices with both destructive effects and deep cultural and emotional roots.