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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

Anna Hazare Fighting Corruption in India

 

Q: How many hours do you think it would take to spark a peaceful national movement inspiring over a billion people to compel their government to stamp out corruption?
A: 98.

Q. And how much food would you consume in those 98 hours?
A. None.

Sounds pretty spectacular doesn’t it? It’s exactly what Anna Hazare, a 71 year old Indian civil activist from India did just last week. Fed up after decades of experiencing rampant corruption Anna decided that the only way to make the government listen was to go on a hunger strike.

Until his demands were met. Or, until his death.

From April 5 till April 9 Hazare fasted. And in those five days a peaceful revolution took place. All over India people took to the streets campaigning in solidarity with Anna calling for the government to pass the Jan Lokpal Bill. This would create an independent body which will have the power to prosecute politicians and bureaucrats without government permission.

As inspiring as his individual deed is it is the peaceful revolution that has occurred within India over the last week that is the greater story.

The scale of what ordinary, everyday people in India have had to endure as a result of corruption is astonishing.

As Kailash Chand in the Guardian outlines,

Over the past six decades, the four pillars of democracy, the legislature, judiciary, executive and the press, have all developed serious problems in India. The rule of law stands subverted and moral values seriously eroded. The civil rights of women and children suffer blatant violations. Daily newspapers are replete with news of rape, dowry-deaths, trafficking, abduction and murder. The weak, the elderly and those living alone are robbed and killed every day. The police authorities prefer to look the other way. Attempts to lodge complaints with them are simply stonewalled unless some activist take the cudgels of justice in their hands. Members of the hallowed corridors of the law courts have succumbed to the temptations of underhand deals. Shanti Bhushan, a leading lawyer, claimed that half of the 16 supreme court chief justices before whom he had appeared were corrupt.

If that isn’t bad enough, one more statistic is the fact that in Bangalore (a city in the South East of India) the average patient in a maternity ward pays approximately US $22 in bribes to receive adequate medical care.

$22 may not sound like much. But for the over 450 million Indians who currently live on or less than US $1.25 a day that amounts to around 3 weeks wages.

That’s why we at the Global Poverty Project are excited to see Anna Hazare, along with millions of his fellow Indians, peacefully demand that the Government stamp out corruption. As they have experienced firsthand, corruption undermines their ability to lift themselves out of poverty.  

Posted by Perrin Wilkins (Corruption Campaigner) in Corruption & Governance for column Success Stories on Apr 12th 2011, 11:32

Meet Mrs Banda

 

Meet Mrs Banda from Malawi, or Margaret to friends. She’s a vibrant woman who’s used support from a microfinance program run by the Salvation Army to help her and her family gain a better life.

For Mrs Banda, microfinance has enabled her to increase her income by a factor of 10 – from 200 to 2000 Kwacha a day. It’s a great example of how fighting poverty is about enabling individuals to flourish, and how aid can work.

It’s in stark contrast to the beating that microfinance has taken in the press in the last few months. The New York Times has even gone so far as to say that, “Microcredit is losing its halo in many developing countries,” as Governments in India and Bangladesh seek to tighten the reins on what has been hailed as a saviour to the world’s poor.

There are legitimate questions to ask about how much microfinance can achieve, and what the rules and regulations should be, but we need to ensure that we remember microfinance is enabling real changes in people’s lives, right now.

As part of this, it’s worth remembering that the concern raised about microfinance has almost entirely been focused on the for-profit organisations – businesses who see microfinance as a way to make money. They’re a very different breed of organisation to the non-profit and social microfinance organisations.

In a recent interview on Australian TV about the critiques of for-profit microfinance groups, Calum Scott from Opportunity International Australia said that “we fear that this will overshadow the good work that socially focused microfinance organisations have been doing both in India and other countries."

Microfinance isn’t a silver bullet, but for women like Margaret Banda, it’s an important step on the ladder out of poverty.

You can donate to the Salvation Army's Generate project here, or by phone on +44 (0) 20 7367 4777 

 

Development Success Story: Trickle Up Mali

 

 
We’re fans of micro-enterprise at the Global Poverty Project, and we’re also suckers for a good story.

That’s why we were so keen to blog about this video from the NGO Trickle Up. To quote straight from their site:
 
"Trickle Up works in Africa, Asia and Central America, reaching people who live on less than $1.25 a day. We work closely with local partner agencies to implement our model in order to provide the very poorest people with the right resources to help them start a microenterprise to improve their families’ quality of life."
 
The important thing in a story like this – apart from letting people tell their own stories in their words – is that it’s not enough to just hand out money and assume that everything will be ok.
 
Microfinance works best when it incorporates support schemes that work alongside locals to develop their understanding of business, and support them through the ups and downs that all businesses have – especially small ones.
 
And, as we remember that microfinance needs to be connected to the community, we’ve also got to remember that it’s not a silver bullet to poverty. Just as in our communities there are more and less entrepreneurial people, there are some people who you’d want to loan money to and others you wouldn’t – the same is true in the world’s poorest communities.
 
Microfinance can make a difference to individuals and families, it’s part of the mix that can enable a community to lift itself out of poverty – and this video is a reminder of how donations that you make can enable people to do amazing things.

 

We're excited!

 

At the Global Poverty Project’s Melbourne office last week, we were excited.

The Lancet had just released a paper announcing that the number of women dying each year in pregnancy or childbirth had dropped from 500,000 annually, to 343,000.[1] 

This was one more in a long list of significant achievements made by the global movement to end extreme poverty.
 
Around the lunch table, we got to talking about some of the other achievements the movement has made over the years, and some of our favourite videos on the topic.
 
It was a pretty inspiring list – so we thought we’d share them with you.
 
Over the next few weeks we’ll be bringing you our favourite success story videos, and celebrating the progress we’ve been making on the way to ending extreme poverty.
 
Part 1 in the series comes from our friends at the One Campaign – it’s called Celebrate, Accelerate.
 
 
With calls to Count Malaria Out this Sunday as part of World Malaria Day, I thought I’d look a little closer at the progress we’re making in this area.
 
I was particularly inspired by the results seen in Ethiopia. In 2003 only 5% of households in Ethiopia owned mosquito bed nets. Recognising this as an opportunity to improve national health, in 2004 the Ethiopian government set an ambitious target for all households in high-risk malaria areas to own at least two long-lasting mosquito nets by 2008.[2]
 
By March 2008 they had exceeded this target. With support from the Global Fund and other donors, 20.5 million bed nets were distributed, achieving 95% coverage in endemic areas. As a result, Ethiopia’s malaria cases dropped by 60%, and the number of children dying from malaria dropped 50% in just two years. [3]
 
With only 8 months left to meet the United Nation’s target of delivering effective and affordable protection and treatment to all people at risk of malaria, it’s important to remember how easy it is to make progress on our development goals. 
 
We’re pretty excited about the progress we’ve made. We hope you are too.
 
Stay tuned for the next installment in our success series next week.


[1] The Lancet - http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%252810%252960518-1/fulltext
[2] One Campaign - http://www.one.org/c/us/issuebrief/747/