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Today is a significant day in the West African country of Mali.
Just outside the capital city of Bamako, in the bustling suburb of Yirimadio (pop. 70,000), 14 neighborhoods have been preparing for a life-changing event.
Today, on the UN-recognized International Day promoting the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC), these 14 neighborhoods have decided that they will no longer support the practices of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage. This public declaration marks a major change in community norms.
It will be a reference point people will use for generations to come marking the moment when they, as a collective group, agreed to protect the health and human rights of their daughters. Government ministers, traditional and religious leaders, hundreds of people from Yirimadio neighborhoods, project donors, Tostan International staff and Tostan’s implementing NGO partner, Muso, have all gathered at the Yirimadio community stadium to witness this celebratory event.
This is the second public declaration in Mali in the last eight months by communities who have participated in Tostan’s holistic human rights-based nonformal education program. In June of last year, 30 communities from the Koulikoro region in Mali made a similar pledge. At that event, community member Diarra Awa Sow said, “I know that I am not going to cut my daughters. I hope that my example will show others that they don’t need to do so either.”
Diarra’s example, and the example of thousands of others who have decided to abandon with their communities, have bolstered the confidence of the 14 neighborhoods declaring today. Rather than deciding silently on their own, they join the growing abandonment movement in West Africa. Since the first public declaration in 1997 by the women of Malicounda Bambara in Senegal, more than 7,000 communities in the African countries where Tostan works have publicly announced their intention to abandon these harmful practices and have shown the way for the movement to grow and spread across community networks and country borders.
Reaching the point of a public declaration is not an easy process. In fact, the 14 neighborhoods who are abandoning today discussed for many months whether or not they would declare, following the completion of their participation in Tostan’s three-year empowerment program. They reached out to thousands in Yirimadio and met frequently to dialogue and debate what they had learned in their class sessions. The information, discussed in their own local language, provided a framework for further learning and dialogue around areas relevant to these communities, such as democracy, human rights, problem-solving, hygiene and health , literacy, numeracy, project management, and environmental sustainability. Through this holistic education, they were better able to gauge which actions protect their human rights and ability to develop, or put them at risk.
It is within this context that taboo subjects like FGC could be safely discussed and questioned – in class sessions, community deliberations, intervillage meetings and beyond – until every member of a social network was consulted. This process of engagement enabled changes in attitude to take place, slowly and inclusively, until connected communities were ready to make public their decisions to choose positive change.
When communities participate in a public declaration, they are making an announcement in a public setting which reflects endorsement of the new social norm - no one will be ostracized for deciding not to engage in a practice when all have collectively agreed to stop it. Communities in West Africa are bound by the weight of their words and it is very important to bring together the whole community to abandon a practice. Public declarations are essential in building a critical mass for abandonment through this collective and public support.
While we know that there is not 100 percent abandonment after a public declaration, these events support the social change process and can work hand in hand with other efforts to encourage abandonment. FGC scholar Dr. Bettina Shell-Duncan recently published an article studying the impact of the law in ending the practice of FGC in rural Senegal. The study found that while many community members knew that there was a law against FGC, local rules most often took preference over rule of law. In order to illustrate this, she included an example of a community which had participated in the Tostan program and put in place an enforcement committee to ensure that families complied with the declaration to abandon FGC. That committee then confronted and fined a family who had taken their daughter across the border into The Gambia to be cut. This was thought to have deterred others from attempting to violate the new “community” law and no cases have been detected since.
This study supports Tostan’s conclusion from experience in hundreds of villages over the past 17 years that the abandonment of FGC must start at the grassroots, with community members who have been educated in their mother tongue and who then reach out to their extended social network to abandon the practice collectively.
Today we congratulate the communities gathered in Yirimadio, Mali who are doing just this, as well as all the other communities who have chosen to pursue a future for their children where health and human rights are respected and protected. The abandonment movement is growing, and now is the time to propel it further through partnership between organizations working to end this practice and with more support for the communities who are bravely taking this step.
Molly Melching is Founder and Executive Director of Tostan.