DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A report on female genital mutilation has stoked a fierce debate in aid circles about the best way to eliminate the secretive practice which has been inflicted on 125 million girls and women worldwide.
Released last week, the report by UNICEF estimated that another 30 million girls were at risk of being cut in the next decade. The study, the first comprehensive assessment of the practice which involves removing part or all of the external genitalia, found that many people wanted to stop FGM but felt under pressure to continue a tradition dating back thousands of years.
In recent years, a global drive to tackle FGM and save another generation of girls from potential physical and psychological damage has gathered pace, but campaigners are divided as to the best approach to take.
In Senegal, non-governmental organisation Tostan, which has long been a poster child of the fight, advocates an approach that aims to empower women and girls through education and programmes teaching literacy, health and human rights.
However, critics were quick to point out that the UNICEF study showed a lack of any marked change in attitudes towards FGM in Senegal despite Tostan's longstanding work there. The report showed that 18 percent of women aged 45-49 believe FGM should continue compared to 16 percent of girls aged 15-19 - only a slight difference between the generations.
"It’s hard for me to hear that attitude change in Senegal hasn’t happened, it’s crazy," Tostan founder Molly Melching told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
"We believe very strongly that the approach that we are using, the respectful non-judgemental approach, using human rights-based education, is one that is having success, (though) this may not be seen in 2010," she added.
'ENFORCE THE LAW'
However, other campaigners such as rights group Equality Now argue that prosecuting cutters and enforcing laws banning FGM are more effective ways of stamping out the practice.
"We have to stop walking around on egg shells. We've been raising awareness for 20 years, now it’s time for prosecution of wrongdoers, even if it means upsetting people," said Efua Dorkenoo, head of the FGM campaign at Equality Now.
She said Equality Now agreed with Tostan that education should be a key part of the process, but added that child protection strategies, legislation and law enforcement were crucial too.
"In Burkina Faso, one of the most improved countries, they have an SOS hotline - toll free system that allows the public to call if they know FGM is being performed and the police arrive immediately on the spot to arrest the perpetrators," Dorkenoo told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even then it's not that simple, according to Gabriel Sagna who works for COSEPRAT (Senegalese Committee against Harmful Health Practices toward Women and Children), a local organisation also fighting FGM in Senegal.
"Yes, it’s good to have a law and enforce the law, but then the men and women who want to cut their child cross the border and go to Gambia where the practice is legal. So there has to be a regional solution," he said.
Despite the latest data from UNICEF on the negligible change of attitudes and prevalence of FGM in Senegal, UNICEF said it would continue its support for Tostan.
"We recognise this work will span decades and the findings of the report support the validity of the core elements of Senegal’s national strategy, which places Tostan’s approach at its centre," UNICEF said in a statement.
Another reason is the reputation Tostan has built for itself since it was set up by Melching in 1991. The group is well known in Europe and the United States, with donors keen to finance the fight against FGM earmarking funds for Tostan through UNICEF.
"As a result, they (Tostan) are often the first port of call for donors, who struggle to find other implementing partners dealing with this specific topic," said a U.N. official who declined to be named.
"Western donors prefer to channel the money through UNICEF because they want the UNICEF branding, the accountability and possibly also for fiscal reasons," the official told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen)