Africa: Defying Tradition, Championing Rights – UNFPA Sparks Change in Female Genital Mutilation Hotspots Across East Africa

“Is [female genital mutilation] religious?” Under a tree in the quiet village of Dalocha Woreda in Central Ethiopia region, Nuritu Sirbar, the Head of the Dalocha district Women and Children’s Affairs Office, challenged community and religious leaders four years ago to justify a deeply ingrained tradition – female genital mutilation (FGM).

The answers provided by the elders reflected a struggle between tradition and the growing realization of the severe health risks associated with FGM. They searched for justification in their scriptures, finding none. When they insisted it was crucial for preserving their identity, Ms. Sirbar pressed further, asking about the benefits of FGM. This prompted a reckoning, as the elders faced the stark realities of this harmful practice – increased maternal mortality, increased incidence of obstetric fistula, decreased sexual intimacy and strained marriages, leading to divorce.

Simrimula Hamiza, an elder in the community was at that meeting. “I thought I knew why we enforce FGM. But when asked at that meeting, I just didn’t have a good enough answer. For the first time, I realized that we can’t defend the practice by simply saying it’s a tradition. Young people ask why and look for an answer in science, not in the old tales,” he said.

Change was on the horizon. Since that day, and with support from the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, Ms. Sirbar’s office has been raising awareness through community-led social mobilization, schools, women’s groups, and youth organizations to dismantle the deep-rooted beliefs surrounding FGM.

In partnership with the regional Bureau of Women and Children Affairs, the programme provided capacity development training and materials to community-based protection structures. Sixty Community Conversation groups with 4,200 members met regularly to deliberate on ending FGM and child marriage. The programme has invested in capacity building, data generation and advocacy, igniting a spark of change in the community.

Ms. Sirbar has witnessed progress. “There are changes. Now, we register all the girls at preschool and work with their parents to make sure they don’t go through FGM,” she said. Her efforts have been extended to youth groups and schools, raising awareness among boys and young men. A new generation has emerged, challenging the status quo on FGM.

Tofik Ibrahim, a 23-year-old who is planning his wedding, exemplifies this change. His stance against FGM surprised his uncut fiancée, demonstrating that young men could redefine cultural norms. Along with his friends, Tofik Etala and Kaire Essac, he rejected the rite of FGM as a painful experience that could jeopardize his life together with his wife-to-be. Instead, these three young men advocate for creating a culture that fosters happy families and healthy children.

Ms. Sirbar acknowledges the gradual nature of this transformation. “I hope that FGM will become a taboo. Just as being uncut brought shame and isolation to the girls and their parents in the past, I wish to reverse that in the future. There is change in the air.”

A beacon of hope for girls evading FGM

In the FGM hotspots of Kenya, the November to December school break looms as a renewed risk for thousands of girls. Despite the practice being declared illegal, deeply rooted cultural beliefs impede progress towards eradicating it in certain regions, according to Prof. Grace Cheserek, the Deputy Governor of Elgeyo Marakwet.

“During this time, girls are seeking temporary shelter where they can stay until the threat of FGM is over,” said Prof. Cheserek.

In response to this crisis, UNFPA partnered with the County Government of Elgeyo Marakwet and the Centre for Enhancing Democracy and Good Governance to equip a newly established rescue centre. This was established by the African Inland Church, Chorwo, to provide refuge for 50 girls seeking to escape FGM during the school break. UNFPA has provided 50 sets of bedding, including beds, mattresses, pillows and blankets. So far, 35 girls have sought refuge at the shelter, with more expected to arrive as the holiday season progresses.

FGM has been on a steady decline in Kenya, from 32 per cent in 2003 to 15 per cent in 2022, data from the Kenya Demographic and Health survey 2022 shows. However, emerging trends such as the medicalization of FGM, as well as cross-border FGM, threaten these gains. As part of the joint programme, UNFPA works with the Government of Kenya and partners to support initiatives aimed at ending the practice, including the development of national and county policies and laws, community dialogues, and promoting women and girls empowerment through education and livelihood activities.

Tanzanian teenager defies tradition

In Tanzania, a beacon of hope has emerged in the form of Bhoke Shanalingigwa, an 18-year-old girl from Masanga village in Tarime, Mara Region. After witnessing the shackles of FGM, GBV, child marriage and teenage pregnancy for girls in her community, she teamed up with Bernard Chacha, a volunteer with the Association for the Termination of FGM (ATFGM), to eradicate these harmful practices.

“I have seen many girls drop out of school because of female genital mutilation, child marriage and teenage pregnancy. It hurt me so much. This will change if they learn about rights and choices and how to say no. It will enable us to empower young women and adolescent girls, including those with disabilities, to claim their rights to be protected from any form of violence and harmful practices,” she said.

UNFPA supports ATFGM through the Chaguo Langu Haki Yangu: My Choice, My Rights programme, funded by the Government of Finland. Within this programme, Bhoke and Bernard organized a school outreach campaign on ending GBV, teenage pregnancy, child marriage and FGM during the 16 Days of Activism in November 2022. They conducted a two-day training at Bhoke’s school, reaching 150 students. Their success inspired Bhoke to start a weekly gender club, becoming a leader in her community.