Positive News in the Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

On Monday, July 22nd, UNICEF released its report on the state of female genital mutilation (“FGM”) around the world. While FGM remains a widespread problem, there are stories of progress and hope among the bleak statistics that 30 million girls will be subjected to FGM in the next decade.

One bright spot is the story of Bogaletch Gebre, her sister Firkte, and their organization, KMG-Ethiopia, which was detailed in the online version of the New York Times on July 17th. Gebre underwent FGM at the age of twelve and nearly died as a result.   Every other girl in her village underwent the same brutal procedure. Once she recovered, Gebre was eligible for marriage. That’s the way it had always been, and it seemed impossible that things would ever change.

Today, KMG-Ethiopia uses a process called “community conversations” to help families understand the harmful consequences of FGM, and to try to change ideas about what makes a young woman a respected member of the community. Gebre knew that outsiders condemning the practice wasn’t going to change people’s minds, so she began organizing conversations that involved everyone in the community—young and old, male and female. These conversations have led to a dramatic shift in community perceptions of FGM, and an incredible decrease in the number of girls being subjected to FGM, The “community conversations” model is highly effective for several reasons:

  • The whole community took part in the conversation about FGM. KMG-Ethiopia recognized that FGM was linked to notions of honor and status in the community, and sought to challenge those assumptions.  Since FGM served as a prerequisite to marriage, it was crucial for men as well as women to understand the dangers of FGM and the absence of any real justification for the procedure.  Once people began questioning the linkage between FGM and notions of marriageability and honor, the practice began losing support.

  • The community understood the health dangers of FGM, and disentangled it from their religious beliefs.  Community members looked to the Koran or the Bible and realized that FGM was not religiously mandated, as many believed. And when parents understood the health dangers that their daughters faced as a result of FGM, they were more likely to question its necessity.

  • Parents saw alternatives to FGM for their daughters. As the community began thinking about FGM in a new light, it released the pressure on parents to cut their daughters for the sake of their future status in the community. Clearly, parents were not practicing FGM to intentionally harm their daughters, but to ensure they had marriage prospects. Now there is pressure not to perform FGM—many parents feel that they will be shunned and their daughters won’t find husbands if they go through with it.

The most inspiring part about KMG-Ethiopia’s work is that it has changed the minds of a community within the space of a generation.  This is a remarkable accomplishment and an important reminder that violent traditions such as FGM are never wholly intractable.  We are hopeful that, with a thoughtful approach and the broad participation of entire communities, this harmful practice can be eradicated in our lifetime.

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