Graça Machel

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FGM/C: Are religious leaders a silver bullet?

28 November 2013

African Studies Center Leiden University

Leiden, The Netherlands – In cooperation between AWEPA and the African Studies Centre at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, a research panel debate was held on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) on 28 November 2013. The Norwegian researcher Ms. Marit Tolo Østebø presented her findings on the question: Are religious leaders a silver bullet in the global fight against FGM? Her research, associated with the University of Bergen, Norway, and the University of Florida, USA, focused on the experiences of Ethiopia. Marit disputed her own title on two fronts: one is that ‘mutilation’ is stigmatizing and is often replaced by ‘cutting’; and two that the martial language around abandonment (e.g. fight, bullet) tends to overshadow the community-based discourse needed for social value change.

A wide-ranging discussion was informed by two panelists: Ms. Zahra Naleie of the Federation of Somalian Associations in the Netherlands; and Dr. Jeff Balch, AWEPA Director Research & Evaluation. Zahra chastised donors for pushing short-term project approaches that require a beautiful report after only two years of implementation. She also warned about the medicalization of FGM and efforts to promote ‘FGM-light’. Zahra stressed that changing patriarchal societies is a long-term effort from generation to generation. Total abandonment is needed, not cosmetic measures, and men need to be involved in the process. She stated that laws were important but not sufficient. There needs to be a credible outreach to all the population concerned by top political leaders, local and national, men and women.

Dr. Balch raised the concern that very much attention goes out to religious and traditional leaders, while the democratically-elected and constitutionally-mandated parliamentarians are left off the list of main stakeholders. This is a major mistake that not only slows down the abandonment effort, but undermines the democratic process at the same time. Jeff pointed to work by AWEPA to engage parliamentarians in West Africa as champions in this effort, which is showing signs of significant impact. But, there is little or no attention to local MPs in the research into ‘what works’, so this is under-reported. Parliamentarians are also not a ‘silver bullet’ because they lack capacity and resources. Dr. Balch added that although the Netherlands government had made an impressive investment in ending child marriage, here too the officials would be well advised to include local parliamentarians in social change efforts, and to provide them with the support needed to take up this combined challenge. It is possible to work on child marriage and FGM/C simultaneously, in cooperation with the relevant parliamentary committees.