U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting Through Honest and Direct Engagement With Communities
February 21st, 2012 | Posted in Gender
by Eric Zuehlke, web communications manager
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted the first-ever event at the State Department to commemorate Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) Day on Feb. 16. Guest speakers and a panel of experts included Congressman Joseph Crowley (who has co-sponsored the “Girls Protection Act of 2011” that would make it a crime to transport girls overseas for FGM/C), and representatives from NGOs, Islamic organizations, and the UN who have worked on ending FGM/C.
At the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, Clinton, then-U.S. First Lady, proclaimed that FGM/C is a violation of human rights. Human rights are women’s rights, and that women’s rights are human rights, she said. Since then, there has been significant global progress in the movement to stop this harmful practice that has affected between 100 million to 140 million girls worldwide, with negative physical and mental health effects. Much more attention is being paid to the harmful effects and the magnitude of the practice, from the international level down to small villages. To date, 18 African countries have outlawed the practice of FGM/C.
Clinton recalled visiting a village in Senegal in 1997 and seeing how progress can be made firsthand. The village elders had been thinking of the detrimental health and quality of life effects of FGM/C on their daughters and they decided the practice had to end, despite generations of tradition. Tostan worked with the community to put the emphasis of this social change on democracy and ensuring participation. Imams explicitly argued that there was no religious basis for FGM/C. The key, according to Clinton, was that there was no finger pointing; no one came from the outside to enforce a change of tradition. PRB’s Women’s Edition journalists learned the same lessons in their field visit to two villages in Senegal where Tostan has worked to further education and knowledge about democracy and human rights. This visit, during the recent International Conference on Family Planning, highlighted the gains that have been made in the empowerment of girls, the end of harmful traditional practices, and economic advances throughout the villages (see the slideshow below).
“Let’s be clear,” Clinton said. “This is a deeply entrenched practice. We need to be unrelenting and understand what works.” She said that it is important to approach the work to end FGM/C with humility. Honest and direct conversation with those with first-hand experience with this issue makes all the difference. To those who would argue that local customs should be respected, Clinton argued that many cultural practices that used to be common are now seen as inexcusable. “[FGM/C] is plain and simple a human rights violation.”
But what approaches work best? In the panel discussion, it became clear from four key points:
- Engagement: In Senegalese villages that have ended FGM/C, the change came from the community itself, not from the outside. Working with religious leaders such as Imams has been instrumental in making people understand the harmful nature of the practice since they are trusted within the community.
- Dialogue: Changing tradition and social norms requires dialogue with parents, children, and community and religious leaders.
- A nonaccusatory and nonconfrontational tone. According to panelist Molly Melching, executive director of Tostan , certain phrases and words close dialogue and others open the path to dialogue. The approach and humility taken when working with communities makes all the difference, she said.
- A willingness to look from others’ perspective. In her closing remarks, UNICEF deputy director Geeta Rao Gupta said that we need to look from other perspectives in order to bring about change. For example, 20 years ago, there was little acknowledgement of FGM/C as a human rights violation; now, it is common knowledge.
When one of the panelists described the progress being made in Iraq to abandon FGM/C in six villages, we were reminded that this isn’t just an African issue (nor is it just a Muslim issue). To learn more about the scale of FGM/C worldwide, in Africa and other regions, check out PRB’s Data Sheet on FGM/C.