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Behavioural change programmes need to be much longer if we want to see a real reduction in female genital cutting, and the short-term goal-orientated approach of some NGOs is at odds with this
In a remote, mud-hut village near the Senegal-Gambia border, 21-year-old Aminata may be among the first generation of Senegalese mothers to say no to female genital cutting (FGC), a centuries-old practice in many African countries that causes extreme pain and suffering in young girls.
Aminata belongs to the Mandingue ethnicity where 82 percent of the women have been cut, the highest rate of all ethnic groups in Senegal. In her community, the practice is thought to be part of the culture and essential for purity.
When I met Aminata in March this year, she told me she was not yet sure whether or not she would circumcise her own daughter. “I know that this is part of our culture, but I’ve heard there are some risks involved,” she told me, speaking quietly so as not to upset the village elders.
This uncertainty, in the hearts and minds of young women like Aminata across the continent, has become the unlikely battleground in the fight against FGC.
Tostan, whose success in persuading people to abandon the practice has received international praise, has been leading the charge for the last two decades.
In her biography ‘However Long the Night,’ Tostan’s CEO, Molly Melching, talks about her human rights-based educational approach and how it has led to the declaration of abandonment of FGC in thousands of villages throughout Senegal.
Tostan became the poster child for behavioural change and the envy of other organisations working to fight FGC. That all changed last week when a UNICEF report indicated that the behavioural change in Senegal had not been as big as it expected.
Tostan has since been fiercely criticised by many other NGOs working in the highly competitive FGC sector, which have asserted that education alone will achieve nothing, that FGC is a crime and has to be punished by law.
The criticism doesn’t stop there. However, before the knives come out, we should ask ourselves if the Tostan approach has been given long enough. Some say that if it hasn’t worked by now, it will never work, but Jean Lieby, Head of Child Protection at UNICEF Senegal, told me earlier this year he believed that if anything, Tostan’s three-year programme is not long enough.
“When you look at experts in the field of behavioural change like the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ), their programmes last for up to 15 years,” said Lieby.
“If we are serious about accelerating the abandonment of FGC, we need to think of a longer long-term plan of even two generations,” he added.
Perhaps here lies one of the real obstacles in the fight against FGC, a practice that has affected 125 million girls and women worldwide. Behavioural change cannot be rushed. It’s a slow and resource-intensive process that often doesn’t show results until the very end.
Changing social norms like FGC, in Senegal or anywhere else in the world, involves throwing in all your chips and hoping for the best. This does not sit so well in the current economic climate and the results-based programming that donors are pushing for.
For them, it does matter how long the night is. They have to be able to show taxpayers value for money. Consequently, programmes have to be S.M.A.R.T; everything FGM programming isn’t, due to the nature of the beast. Hence, a programme that should last 20-30 years is cut down to 1-3 years, leaving implementing organisations with little scope to dig deep and get to the root causes of the problem.
Furthermore, instead of creating a secure environment for ideas to flow so that a few highly committed actors can work closely together towards a common goal, this encourages intense rivalry between different organisations that all want a slice of the cake, and in its wake a lack of knowledge sharing and innovation.
In the four months since I spoke to Aminata, national statistics show there is an extremely high chance that she (or her community) has already cut her baby daughter. If donors were brave enough to gamble on real “longer long-term” behavioural change programmes, then perhaps Aminata’s decision could have been made much easier.
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