I read with regret about how some FGM activists have been attacked in their campaign against FGM. Unfortunately these are some of the challenges that we have to face. Just one piece of advice. I am African and I know how challenging it is to change a mind-set. A colleague mentioned the use of a telephone number here in the UK which could give support. However those who are working with communities abroad will need more than a UK telephone number. So I thought of ways to approach people.
Nothing new but they are worth remembering. There is no doubt that it is a violent crime so why then are people being attacked for wanting to put an end to it? Part of it is because people don’t know any better. I have come to the conclusion that FGM has been an untouchable area for charities and so forth because for many it seemed like attacking a people’s culture. And those communities where FGM is practised have led people to believe that it is a culture, with most of these practising countries being former colonies of Western countries (which had experienced criticisms of their indigenous cultures and behaviours). As a result, there may be a tendency for local people to be defensive, even when they know the practice is wrong. It’s all very well talking about FGM and writing about it but people also need strategies that work. What might have worked in one community might not necessarily work for another and this should be remembered.
Also sometimes people forget the local people and how important they are. I remember when I was young; there were communities that resisted immunisation. When health officials went there with their mobile clinic, they found a ghost city waiting for them. All the children had been hidden and a few adults waited to explain that they did not want anybody attacking their culture. ‘Culture’ does not justify violence. Some people from FGM communities see any involvement by outsiders as an attack and would oppose anyone who said otherwise, which why the method by which we approach people and whether they can feel they can trust us makes a difference in people’s attitude. For the example above of people who resisted immunising their kids, it was by making people involved understand the risks involved that worked rather than a confrontation.
How was this achieved?
· Dealing with the senior people of the community rather than with individuals
· Bribing people ( Even during slave trade, wealthy landowners had to be paid off in order to release their slaves) Sometimes small favours can get someone’s attention even if it’s just to make them listen.
· Listen to people’s views. - No good doing the talking without giving the FGM practising community leaders an ear. Let’s remember, in these communities there is stigma associated with whichever way things go. Those circumcised are laughed at and those who are not are made to feel small, so it is best to listen and listen well. Oxfam, in it’s approach in helping communities realised that it works better to empower the locals than impose.
· Knowing when to stop. I have seen people trying so hard to make people understand reason, but if one pushes more than the other person can take, it can be all in vain as people are by nature defensive to criticism.
· Just keeping things simply- In the case of immunisation, the people involved with the project used all sorts of tools including rag dolls to illustrate the dangers of the consequences. Slowly people began to understand. People like circumcisers in many FGM practising communities are not educated, and would need more than an English written document to understand and accept
· Making sure the communication and the message being relayed is what the other person thinks it is. This can be achieved by getting a balance by understanding people and communities and their background. Writing a piece of paper in a room or hotel somewhere without the understanding of a people could be seen as an attack. Culture whether good or bad with a capital C is central to the existence of many communities especially African. But it can be this culture that enslaves. Making those from the culture understand, will need perseverance and understanding from activists.
· I would also suggest it may be better for people to know and understand something of a community before approaching them. Dr Ann Marie Wilson –Director of the charity 28Too Many visited some of the FGM practising communities in Africa and the Middle East just to be able to understand better without hypothesizing.
· Just work with others rather than being individualistic. This is a global problem and making it a one man band does not work. Remember these people have been practising FGM for years and to them it is normal. There needs to be more than one person working in a community.
As I pointed out before , saying something is not right within a community is not the same as attacking a country or people but like any community anywhere in the world it is necessary to weed out from time to time the evil and harmful practices. Like any cultural war there are bound to be criticisms and attacks but we have gone too far to let those attackers win. The battle continues, No to FGM.
And to those girls and women who have lost hope, read what happened to the brave girls who were thrown into this horrific practice at the age of 12 and had to think survival in my book ''A Lost Youth''.
A Lost Youth( a book on FGM)is available on Amazon if you want to purchase. I will be donating some copies to charities.