Saturday 6th February marked International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, sparking much discussion amongst the international development community on how more work is desperately needed to combat this harmful practice, which UNICEF estimate has now directly affected over 200 million women and girls across the world.
Despite having been illegal for many years in a number of countries, varying forms of the practice continue widely – suggesting that whilst legal protection is important, it is not enough to eradicate a tradition which in many societies is deeply entrenched in social norms. Whilst the language in the media regarding this issue tends most often to be negative and intended to shock, there are organisations working in this arena that approach from the grassroots, seeking first and foremost to better understand the complex context in which the issue is situated.
Itad has had the opportunity over the past year to work with one such organisation, Tostan, whom we are assisting to develop their monitoring system which will feed into their overall Monitoring, Research, Evaluation and Learning (MERL) approach and practice. Tostan has been working on issues of community empowerment in West Africa since its foundation in 1991. The Tostan Community Empowerment Programme (CEP) is the organisation’s flagship model and has been running for 25 years; it is a three-year human rights based education programme currently co-ordinated across six countries (the Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal) seeking to provide holistic education on themes such as health, communication, democracy, participation, and conflict resolution. Tostan believes that lasting change to social norms will only come about when those communities choosing to change do so of their own accord, rather than feel pressured into adhering to demands they view as external to and ignorant of their cultures.
Tostan has shown that in many instances of FGC, parents believe they are acting out of kindness; believing that not being cut in these societies means not being able to secure a husband or a future, so to not cut their daughter would be to resign her to a life of isolation. However, data and evidence that they have gathered has suggested that this belief is frequently held based on expectations of what others in the community think is appropriate, rather than always being a personal belief. Using evidence in this way is an important aspect of their approach which links to how social norms can reinforce all manner of practices, and conversely how it can be used to effectively challenge them. As such, 3 million people currently live in communities that have publicly declared an end to female genital cutting following exposure to the CEP.
Rather than using the word ‘mutilation’, Tostan uses ‘cutting’, on the premise that women who have been cut may well object to and feel further stigmatised by being described in such a way. Arguably, using terms such as ‘mutilation’ do little in the world of international development to convince local populations that they are understood, and rethinking the language in which we choose to frame discussions around this important and serious issue could go a long way to avoiding stigmatisation, defensiveness and polarisation of cultures.
The monitoring system Itad are working with Tostan to refine does seek to capture data on FGC but also on various other themes too, including governance, environment, health and economic activity. Receiving data centrally at baseline, midline and endline from the communities in which the CEP is active is vital to ensuring the organisation is able to monitor change, and learn and adapt its approach in response to findings to increase effectiveness. As the intervention targets social norms, the monitoring system must monitor more than results alone; it must be both aligned and responsive to the social norms approach at its core; tracking both the results of the intervention and how they come about, and helping Tostan to understand and respond to the evidence being gathered from the varied communities with whom they work.