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How the Gambia is Fighting Female Genital Cutting


This was originally posted on the Daily Beast and is reproduced with the author's permission. Julia Lalla-Maharajh was volunteering in Ethiopia when she came across the scale and impact of female genital cutting. She subsequently won a YouTube competition to appear at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to discuss the issue with world leaders. Following that experience, she set up the Orchid Project which aims to see a world free from female genital cutting by 2025.

In Africa, female genital cutting is being abandoned—an unexpected result of an innovative program that promotes community-level problem solving. Julia Lalla-Maharajh reports from The Gambia

I found it hard to believe what I was seeing and experiencing. I kept sitting straighter, concentrating harder, unable to reconcile my thoughts with what was happening in front of me.

Sitting in the front row of a square, amongst over a thousand others, I had pride of place. Around me, women were dressed in bright colors, the sunlight fierce on their faces. I was in The Gambia to bear witness, to come the closest I have yet, to female genital cutting and the communities who have practiced it for decades, even centuries. The heat pervaded, the insistence of the drummers grew louder as performers leapt, sang, and enticed the crowd. Around me, young girls sat, fidgeting, nervous. I too felt nervous.

A young girl listens while her mother attends a meeting to eradicate female genital mutilation in the western Senegalese village of Diabougo on September 10, 2007. (Credit: Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters)

But not because I was about to witness a graphic act of cutting. Instead, this joyful ceremony was actually marking the end of the practice of genital cutting. People had gathered together to celebrate the fact that from that day forward, their daughters would not be cut, would still be married, and most importantly, that they themselves had chosen this path.

The energy of the occasion was incredible. Colors swirled as people danced to affirm their commitment; speeches were brief and poignant, talking about change; women spoke—some for the first time in their entire lives, in front of a gathered audience, their dignity and pride apparent.

For me, the most incredible sight was the former cutters dressed in long red shifts, swaying briskly into the center of the square to the rapid beat of a drum, carrying leafy branches. They danced, then stood in front of the crowd and explained that they now were aware of the implications of female genital cutting, that it brings health problems, that there are many difficulties. The woman who was the spokesperson held out a calabash, a hollowed out gourd traditionally used to hold the cutters' instruments. Now, ceremonially she put it down in front of them, on the ground. Bringing her foot down with a stamp, it shattered and she held her hands out to the crowd:

"We are no longer going to practice this. We are no longer going to practice this."

People responded. Around me were religious leaders, elected officials, youth groups, village elders, the police, a representative from the government's Women's Bureau. As villagers from the host community, Sare Ngai, performed a play about child marriage and FGC, everyone leaned forward in their chairs, entranced.

Communities themselves identify what no longer serves them. In this way, the changes made are sustainable and owned.

This was so different from the last year I had spent, trying to raise awareness about FGC and its scale and impacts. One year ago, almost to this day, I left the World Economic Forum in Davos, having exhorted attendees and the world's listeners to "End FGM Now"—my outrage was apparent and passionate. YouTube voters sent me to Davos in a competition that asked for a human rights abuse to be showcased. I set about trying to find out what was really happening at the grassroots and community level and was amazed at what I found—which is why, today, I am in Senegal to witness the remarkable impacts of over 5,000 communities declaring that they want change.

So how does this change happen? The theory is simple: what unites us all is a common purpose to uphold peace, unity, and safety. These moral norms are shared by people all around the world. In the communities where the African women's empowerment group Tostan works, the first question asked is, what do you aspire to? Invariably, the answer is peace. The next questions are around issues that might threaten that peace—not only externally, but also from within a community. Participants, both women and men, young and old, work with a community facilitator who explores human rights and what this means in reality.

This is the start of a three-year program that covers democracy, human rights, problem-solving, hygiene, health, literacy, numeracy, and management, to name but a few. Ending FGC was in fact an unintended consequence of the program, but now, over 5,000 communities in 6 African countries have abandoned it. Fundamental to the change is that women find their voice and have a safe space where they can explore their human rights and their responsibilities; equally important is that they learn how to put these sometimes intangible concepts into practice.

Once they learn about basic rights to health and freedom from harm, people themselves start to question their own behaviors. They speak with one another and discover the stronger links between, for example, female genital cutting and tetanus—if you don't know your daughter has died from tetanus, because you've never understood that there are invisible germs that lead to an infection that can take hold two weeks after an initial wound, would you necessarily relate the two?

Knowledge really is power. What is so powerful is that communities themselves identify what no longer serves them. In this way, the changes made are sustainable and owned.

Quite simply, the construction of a social norm (say, FGC) which has existed for centuries to uphold a moral norm (say, that every daughter must be married for her own protection) is seen to be no longer valid. It might once have been, but given what is known today, it is no longer acceptable. Once a community grasps this, it moves very quickly towards abandonment and declares its intention to no longer cut girls. The declaration is vital, not only because it is public and witnessed, but also because other intra-marrying communities are involved. Thus everyone knows that a girl will be uncut—both the prospective husbands and their families.

For me, this concept is so successful because it works with ultimate respect for the community involved and addresses the issue at the root. Sustainable change only happens when there is an understanding about what motivates communities in the first place. If we start from the basis that every parent wants what is best for their child, then we are in the right place. This was the first and most important lesson that I learned that shifted my understanding of FGC. It is this understanding and deep respect for communities, for their right to choose how to make decisions that will affect their lives, that is making a difference in thousands of local communities.

At this very moment, we have a chance to say that we are the last generation alive to bear witness to and experience female genital cutting. If this can be taken to scale and resourced and implemented across all the countries where it is practiced, we will no longer need an annual day to express our international concern. We will no longer need to use statistics to call the world's attention, statistics that somehow mask the reality of the pain of our girls and our women. I, for one, long for that day.

I later had a conversation with Saikou Jallow, a pharmacist and health worker from the village of Sare Ngai. He spoke with such thoughtfulness and dignity about his decision not to cut his daughter. I realized that what had been offered to him was true empowerment—the decision he made allowed him to reach for a higher good - one of peace and well-being for his child. Surely that is all we ever want? As I left him, I clasped his hand and said "jaarama"—thank you, in Fulani. "Yes,"he said, "thank you, thank you for coming to see. Make sure you tell people."

Learn more about the Orchid Project at their website

Posted by Julia Lalla-Maharajh (Guest Blogger) in Women & Gender for column Success Stories on May 4th 2011, 06:30

Post Bin Laden's Death: Charlie Wilson's Real War


Osama bin Laden's death is a pivot point for Pakistan.  Just as the 'Arab Spring' is bringing about greater democracy and freedoms in North Africa and the Arab world, the decline of Al Qaeda and its ideology must be used to open up new wells of opportunity in Pakistan.  This is especially true in the field of education. Consider this sobering fact: of the 67 million children who miss out on schooling, 25 million of them live in Pakistan. It is impossible to comprehend the cost to that country in economic and social terms of this education emergency.  Above all, it is a moral travesty.  

Even though the vast majority of its citizens love peace and yearn for stability, it is neither a coincidence nor a surprise that Pakistan has become a haven for extremists.  When educational and economic opportunity is beyond reach because the state is failing generation after generation of children, radicalism and fear of the outside always finds a home.  

Bin Laden's death is a moment of reckoning for the small number of extremists who remain wedded to jihadist ideology that would repress women and girls and trample on human freedoms.   It is clear that their hate-filled ideas offer no solution to the millions living in poverty in Muslim countries.  The death of Osama Bin Laden doesn't mean the end of terrorism -- not by a long shot -- but it surely offers leaders and citizens the chance to imagine and build a future that does away with terrorism.  

In places like Indonesia, people have discovered how extending the reach of opportunity can help build more productive, healthier and happier communities.  As we wrote about here, Australia invests millions every year in helping the Indonesian Government build schools and colleges because both countries understand that peace in the region benefits from more open minds and fewer clenched fists.  

But look at Pakistan, which receives billions in military aid each year to help it fight terrorism, far more than it receives in grants to build classrooms.  Let's hope the people of Pakistan make the most of recent events and stand up for a reversal of such wrong-headed priorities.  The question today is: will the people and government of Pakistan take hold of the moment?  


Live Below the Line in House of Lords


Thanks to the leadership of Global Poverty Project Advisory Board Member, Jack McConnell, the UK's House of Lords yesterday debated extreme poverty.

You can read the full text of the debate in Hansard, and we've excerpted some highlights below:

"Next week, some members of this House will take part in an innovative campaign organised by the Global Poverty Project—an organisation on whose advisory board I am pleased to sit—called Live Below the Line. The Global Poverty Project seeks to abolish extreme poverty within a generation. It wishes to keep alive the spirit of the Make Poverty History campaign of 2005 but to deepen and widen that movement for change to involve many more people the world over in a movement that will finally eradicate extreme poverty. Live Below the Line is an awareness and fund-raising campaign. It involves a number of partners with the Global Poverty Project. It is supported by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for International Development, the shadow Secretary of State for International Development and many others."
   --- Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale

"We are all here in the Chamber because we care about this issue. It is the reason that the noble Lord and I will be joining thousands of others across the world who are supporters of the Global Poverty Project by participating in the challenge to “live below the line” for five days next week." ... "Live Below the Line is one way of standing up for what we think is right in the world. In addition to the soup kitchen, next week the Lord Speaker will host an event in the River Room on Wednesday evening to which you are all most welcome. We cannot offer noble Lords lavish canapés, or even a glass of wine, but please join us at that event to learn more, or over lunch on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, and share with us our 33p or 40p meal."
   --- Baroness Jenkin of Kennington

"I am grateful to the Government for ring-fencing the aid budget, especially in the current economic climate. This decision reflects the continuing commitment of the British people to assist the world's poorest and affirms the United Kingdom as an example within the international community. I believe that churches and other faith communities with deep convictions and roots in poorer communities around the world will continue to uphold and monitor the Government's decision on the aid budget, even as other funding pressures are faced at home. I urge the Government also to encourage other EU and G20 Governments to uphold their commitments to the world's poorest, who inevitably have been most acutely affected by the global financial crisis."
   --- The Lord Bishop of Gloucester

"Yesterday in this House we spoke of the core curriculum. I was late in getting up and did not get my question in. Is there not a place for a global overview in the core curriculum? It is a small world compared to the one I was brought up in. It is a world in which there is so much poverty, but so much knowledge and so much to be learnt. I wonder if our children are learning about the great needs of this world in which we live. Is there not some way that the core curriculum could involve something such as international development or world need among its subjects? "
   --- Lord Roberts of Llandudno

"On 12 April the US Government announced a cut in their aid budget roughly equivalent to the aid the United Kingdom gives from its Exchequer every year. The United States still remains the largest global cash giver but it is the smallest contributor in terms of the percentage of its GDP of any major nation. Will the Prime Minister face down President Barack Obama at the G8 about his responsibility and that of his nation to ensure that development does not take place on the back of the poor, which is precisely what this Government said they would not do with aid?"
   --- Lord Hastings of Scarisbrick

"This is not a time for pessimism and cynicism. Great leaps forward have been made and more is certainly needed and possible in the battle that has to be waged against the endemic inequities which keep the people poor, excluded and powerless. Some countries have suffered serious setbacks and economic growth has been extremely unequal. The UN asserts that while the gaps in human development across the world are narrowing they remain huge. Now, however, is not the time to peddle doom and gloom about these issues, but rather to show that aid works and that effective development can and must be supported. That is why donors should focus on what they do best and should work with Governments on health, education, good governance, and support for justice and taxation systems."
   --- Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead

Posted by Simon Moss - GPP General Manager in Aid for column Live Below the Line on Apr 29th 2011, 09:07

Children Standing Up for Children


Most of us probably don’t know that in 1989 the United Nations passed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) that gave special protection and rights to all children around the world under the age of 18. It became the most agreed human rights convention ever and stressed the responsibility of every adult to make these rights a reality.

This means that for the past 20+ years, every young person under 18, regardless of what country they live in, has possessed the legal right to a good standard of living, clean drinking water, nutritious food, health care, education and even the right to relax and play. Yet despite this convention, children’s rights in developing countries often get pushed to the bottom of the political agenda and forgotten by society.

That’s why the Global Poverty Project has teamed up with Plan Australia to make this short clip to raise awareness about the rights of children so that we can all make sure these rights are protected and our governments deliver on their promises to honor them. Our presenters will soon be taking out this message to schoolkids across Australia to show them what their rights are and why they should help stand up for other children who are being denied these rights in developing countries around the world.

Click here to sign up for a presentation at your school.

Posted by Ashli Alberty in Education, Poverty for column Issue Analysis on Apr 28th 2011, 08:41

Can small farmers solve our big problems?


With Live Below the Line fast approaching, this guest blog, which was originally published by the Fairtrade Foundation looks at how we can move towards a fairer world without hunger.

Fairtrade Fortnight launches this year amid increasing hunger in the developing world and sharply rising food and commodity prices caused by rising food demand, poor harvests, climate change, excessive speculation and hoarding.

As concern grows over how the world will feed a rapidly rising population, it is almost taken for granted that increased food production will be supplied by big agri-business operating over large tracts of land and pushing down costs with aggressive margins.

There are, however, 450 million smallholders on whom another 1.5 billion rely on for their food and livelihood. The needs and the potential of these people are all too often forgotten in the escalating global food crisis.

Two years ago, in the light of the food price spikes of 2008, the Fairtrade Foundation released a study showing how smallholder farmers are often among the most vulnerable to increased food prices. Producers in poor countries sit at the wrong end of both chains – paying over the odds for food and fertilizers while receiving a pittance for the product of their skills and labour. A UN report on global hunger, in 2006 indicated that half the world’s ‘hungry’ were actually farmers.

This situation is not inevitable. It is a direct consequence of deep rooted inequality, in global society and in the food system specifically.

There is a growing consensus that something is broken in global supply chains. In January 2011 the British government, in its Foresight report ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’, acknowledged ‘a compelling case for urgent action to redesign the global food system’. The Foresight report highlighted both the need to reduce volatility in food prices and to ensure that increasing food production is matched with action to secure universal access to food.

A few months earlier, the Food and Ethics Council launched their excellent report ‘Food Justice’. This report made clear the creation of a fairer food system is central to achieving wider sustainability and health goals.

In 2009, the ‘International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’ (IAASTD), set out to respond to ‘the widespread realization that despite significant scientific and technological achievements in our ability to increase agricultural productivity, we have been less attentive to some of the unintended social and environmental consequences of our achievements’. Policy options from the report for addressing food security include major investment in smallholder agriculture and ‘increasing the full range of agricultural exports and imports, including organic and Fair Trade products’

The Food Ethics Council report is particularly welcome as too many recent discussions about food security have focussed understandably, albeit simplistically, on the need to produce more and more food, but ignored issues of justice and equity.

We are surely shooting ourselves in the foot if, in our drive to increase food production, we leave more people unable to afford the additional food that we produce. As we stand the worlds agriculture provides more than enough food for six billion, but a high percentage of this is wasted, thrown away or adds to the growing problem of obesity while others go hungry.

A lot of discussions about food security focuses on the need to use technology and economies of scale to improve the efficiency of agricultural production. Such approaches will undoubtedly have a role to play, but a fair and sustainable food system will require an appropriate balance of investment in both small and large scale production.

In its 2011 ‘Rural Poverty Report’ the International Fund for Agriculture and Development (IFAD) President, Kanayo F Nwanze, stated that:

‘It is time to look at poor smallholder farmers and rural entrepreneurs in a completely new way – not as charity cases but as people whose innovation, dynamism and hard work will bring prosperity to their communities and greater food security to the world in the decades ahead.’

Across the world the Fairtrade movement provides thousands of examples demonstrating how smallholder farmers can use the opportunities provided by Fairtrade to invest in agricultural improvement and diversification. This experience complements an increasing number of studies, most notably by Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, suggesting that investing in smallholder farms can be a route to:

- Substantial gains in terms of productivity per hectare
- Improving environmentally sustainablity
- Poverty reduction and improved equality of income

One of the critical factors to achieving these improvements has been effective organisation. The Fairtrade system requires smallholders to organise into cooperatives or other forms of democratic institution. This organisation can provide smallholders with greater control over price setting, access to knowledge and opportunities to capture value.

A paper by the Natural Resources Institute (NRI) in 2010, reviewing all published literature investigating Fairtrade’s impact (over 80 reports in total), concluded that the published literature strongly supports the argument that Fairtrade is having positive economic and empowerment impacts for smallholder farmers and identified democratic organisation as being of particular relevance to the impact.

Of course, Fairtrade alone cannot create a sustainable food system. Much wider shifts in Aid and Trade policy will be required. As an example the recent Government white paper on Trade acknowledges the role that trade can play in development and makes a strong commitment to the ‘Aid for Trade’ programme. This is 15% of the UK’s Aid budget which is spent against a set of criteria explicitly designed to increase poor countries ability to benefit from trade.

A 2009 report by the Brussels-based Fair Trade Advocacy Office shows that, of the £155 million spent between 2001 – 2005 by the UK on Aid for Trade (based on a relatively narrow definition of ‘Aid for Trade’), only 29 projects with combined funds of approximately US$7 million were specifically designed to benefit smallholders – just 2% of the total.

While investment in large scale infrastructure is necessary, it is unlikely to be sufficient to ensure that poor farmers are able to realise the potential trade can offer. Greater emphasis must be placed on programmes with an explicit focus on reaching rural communities. There is also a need to shift the focus towards ‘soft’ interventions such as organisational development, extension services, training and communications services that. Fairtrade has demonstrated just what a catalytic effect such support can have in bringing smallholder farmers into national and global markets.

The fantastic Fairtrade sales figures for 2010 show, even in these troubled times, price is not the only thing that matters to UK shoppers. The basic principles of Fairtrade – that poor producers deserve a fair return for their labour and that there is more than one way to address ‘economic efficiency’ – still resonate. Our policy makers need to take heed!

You can take action in the fight against hunger by joining thousands of others around the world in Live Below the Line this May. Learn more and signup now - USA, UK, Australia.

Posted by Toby Quantrill (Guest Blogger) in Hunger for column Live Below the Line on Apr 27th 2011, 06:29