Female genital cutting is practised in 28 African countries. Why can’t the law stop it?
“Do you want me to lock up everyone involved in cutting a girl?” It was a challenging question, and it demanded an answer.
I was face to face with the minister of justice for Puntland in Somalia in March 2012. The prevalence of female genital cutting here was 98%. “How am I going to lock up 98% of the population for breaking the law? If I make female genital cutting illegal, then I have a duty to enforce that. Surely you can see it isn’t possible?”
I had just started the Orchid Project, dedicated to protecting girls by stopping female genital cutting worldwide, but I stumbled in my answer. If something contravenes so many rights, then there must be a way to have an enforceable law against it. Surely?
From the very beginning, I found myself confronted by how to work with the law. I was constantly questioned: “Why haven’t we ended this practice by making it illegal? Why aren’t more people prosecuted?” It was tempting to follow this line of inquiry myself, but I was worried about pursuing it given the evident ineffectiveness of the laws in countries where they had been passed.
Female genital cutting is carried out in 28 African countries, and 33 more globally, including Indonesia, Malaysia and India. A girl’s body is at the centre of the interaction, yet she is not spoken with or consulted, only upheld as a cipher for chastity, virginity, cleanliness and purity.
The cutter is usually a female traditional birth attendant or another woman in the community. Women are at the heart of this practice, and this seemed to be the genius of patriarchy: that women have appropriated it and championed its continuation.
Think about this: every mother who has gone through female genital cutting will in turn pass on this experience to her daughters. What do the mothers themselves think? Why do they cut their girls, knowing what they themselves had gone through?
Working for a women’s charity in the UK nearly 20 years ago, I needed to understand how communities were responding to the practice, given their innate ownership of the issue, and the wisdom they have about their own lives. I wanted to do something, but I did not know what could work to protect the bodies, minds and spirits of tiny girls.
I found an answer when I journeyed to the Gambia in West Africa in 2011.
I am in Sare Ngai in the Gambia in 2011. I can scarcely believe what I am seeing. Around me dancers whirl. Drums provide the background, faster and louder than a heartbeat. The colours are bright, and in the fierce sun the whole scene seems overexposed. The cutters are dressed in red and are centre-stage in a village square, surrounded by hundreds of people. The cutters hold small gourds full of hooked knives and sharp blades, which they hold in front of them as they dance.
Five women come to the front, tip their knives on the ground, and place their empty gourds before them. Another woman approaches them, holding a lit torch. They take off their red gowns and, in a gesture magnificent in its finality, they catch their gowns on the torch so that each goes up in flame.
They turn to the crowd and raise their voices, shouting clearly and firmly, through the noise of the drums. Doussou, my host, is next to me: “They are saying that from this day on, they vow never to cut a girl again.” Each cutter breaks the gourd underfoot. Their robes are gone into ashes. Change is upon us.
The theory is simple: what unites us is a common purpose to uphold peace, unity and safety. These moral norms are shared by people all around the world. In communities like that of Sare Ngai, the spark of change is provided by an African empowerment group named Tostan, which begins the process with a question: to what do you aspire? Invariably, the answer is peace. The next questions are around issues that might threaten such peace, and in the skilful hands of a facilitator this leads to an exploration of the concept of human rights and dignity, and what this means in reality.
The Tostan model works like this: once people learn about basic rights to health and freedom from harm, they start to question their own behaviour. They speak with one another and discover the strong links between, for example, female genital cutting and tetanus: if you don’t know your daughter has died from tetanus, because you’ve never understood that there are invisible germs that lead to an infection, would you necessarily relate the two?
Fundamental to change is that women find their voices and have a safe space to explore their human rights and their responsibilities; equally important is that they learn how to put these sometimes intangible concepts into practice. In the Tostan model, communities themselves identify what no longer serves them. In this way, the changes made are sustainable and owned.
What I saw at Sare Ngai made tangible the theories of change I had been exploring. There are entire unwritten codes of practice that wind their way through all of our lives and are upheld in every society. We belong by conforming to these codes. We might call these codes “social norms”, one of which is female genital cutting.
Often a norm is not discussed or made visible, but its power is extremely strong. A social norm such as female genital cutting can exist unquestioned for centuries, because it might uphold a stronger, more visible community-wide moral norm: for example, wishing to have a form of social protection for daughters, to keep them safe.
In this instance, the form of perceived social protection might be marriage (in itself another social norm). Thus the reasoning behind upholding the social norm remains hidden because the moral norm takes primacy. There is a profound and simple beauty, though: a social norm can shift.
While I was at the Sare Ngai ending-cutting ceremony, I met a pharmacist named Saikou Jallow. He told me that previous NGOs working on the female genital cutting issue had lectured people about how wrong they had been, which had only made people more intransigent. He spoke with dignity about his decision not to cut his youngest daughter, which had “allowed me to reach for my own higher good”. I realised that what had been offered to him was an ability to exercise his own agency in his decision-making, rather than have it imposed on him.
Saikou Jallow exemplified the power of Tostan’s approach. Once a community is allowed to question the social norm, to understand how it is often overshadowed by the moral norm, and grasps the reality that cutting is harmful to a girl, people move quickly towards its abandonment and are able to declare an intention to stop the practice.
The declaration is vital because it is public and witnessed by other nearby communities. Thus everyone knows that a girl will be uncut: both their families and their future social network. This “declaration” is a moment like no other: when the social norm actually visibly shifts from “all girls are cut” to “all girls are uncut”.
Laws against female genital cutting exist in 26 of the 28 African countries that practice it, but this doesn’t correlate to any trends of a reduction in its practice. If the social norm is one where all girls are cut, then everyone within that community is meshed together in a web of decision-making, which makes them complicit with the perpetrator — and hence part of the prosecution process, if the practice is outlawed. How then would a legal, enforceable framework operate at that scale?
When communities believe that the social shame and stigma of being uncut is, in fact, a social death for a girl, they will do all they can to ensure that their practice is maintained, even if it means breaking the law. But if the entire community has been educated, informed and told about the law and its repercussions — if people have gone through a values shift that upholds the rights of a girl and then the law enforces that — then real change can happen.
• Julia Lalla-Maharajh is the founder of the Orchid Project and has received an OBE for her work in campaigning against female genital cutting.
• This is an edited extract from ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated: People Power and Legal Power in the 21st Century’ (OR Books), edited by Mark Gevisser and Katie Redford.
• ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Litigated’ will be launched at Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg, on September 21 at 6pm. Mark Gevisser will be in conversation with contributors Mark Heywood and Kumi Naidoo, as well as Nomzamo Zondo of the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI).
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