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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

Lots to celebrate, more to do


Tuesday March 8 is International Women's Day. In celebration, here's a post from Global Poverty Project team member, Julie Cowdroy, which was originally published on the ABC Drum.

This week we celebrate 100 years since the first official International Women’s Day (IWD). Women celebrate the constitutional rights, civil liberties and privileges that are enjoyed today. We reflect and applaud the women who navigated their way through the last hundred years.

One example of improvement for women in the West over the last century, is in the area of maternal health. Up until 1920, high maternal mortality rates occurred in the US despite improvements in access to health care and antibiotics. Yet major reductions in the Maternal Mortality Rate did not occur until the achievement of women’s right to vote.

Similar political struggles for women are still occurring around much of the world. Achieving women’s rights has not been easy, and in fact on a global level, there is still much to be done. Globally, women still suffer disproportionately to men. Women make up approximately half the world’s population, yet two thirds of those who live in extreme poverty are women. Women perform two thirds of the world’s working hours, yet only earn ten per cent of the world’s income and less than one per cent of the world’s property.

However the problem should not be measured or described as purely an economic one. While estimates by the United Nations suggest it would cost $83 billion to achieve gender equality, naming a price can underestimate the complexities of the issues. Economic solutions for women can achieve some results, but as we observed in the US, the issue of women’s marginalisation cannot be addressed only with money.

For instance, Sri Lanka has managed to halve its maternal deaths since 1935 even thought Sri Lanka only spends three per cent of Gross National Product (GNP) on health care each year. On the other hand, India spends five per cent on health care, yet Indian women are eight times more likely to die in childbirth. Sri Lanka is seeing improvement due to higher education and literacy rates, excellent monitoring and data collection through a strong civil registration system and an effective functioning health care system in rural areas. All of these factors come from a strong political will by the Sri Lankan people, themselves.

In his best-selling book, Half the Sky, Nick Kristof quotes the journal Clinic Obstetrics and Gynecology:

“Women are not dying because of untreatable diseases. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”

When considering how women’s rights can be achieved globally, it is important to be reminded of the complexities of our own development history. Development in other contexts will not just happen with a step-by-step process, a “tick the box” plan, or with a whole lot of capital or economic growth. Poverty reduction for women is not just about an increase in resources, it is about removing the barriers that inhibit access to these resources. Local cultural and political factors can limit access, but so too can international institutions, rules and norms – or put simply, political will at the international level.

Improvements are possible when the international community champions global rules and institutions that strengthen gender equality, such as increasing the number of women in decision-making roles in the health sector. Real progress will be made when both local and global actors work to support women’s greater bargaining power and control at a local level. Positive examples can be found in the Top 10 Maternal Health Highlights in 2010 report issued by maternal health campaign organisation, Women Deliver.

IWD 2011 provides us with the opportunity to celebrate the rights and privileges we enjoy in Australia today, but also provides us with the chance to reflect on why women remain the most marginalised group in the world, and what we can do to rectify that.

Posted by Julie Cowdroy in Women & Gender for column Issue Analysis on Mar 8th 2011, 08:20

Girl Effect: The Clock is Ticking


The girl effect have just released this fantastic new video.

Tracing the challenges and opportunities that face a girl from the age of 12, it reminds us why giving girls a fair go is central to the fight against poverty.

Watch it, share it, and tell us what you think below.

Posted by Simon Moss - GPP General Manager in Women & Gender for column Issue Analysis on Sep 21st 2010, 21:30

Rains leave Pakistani females drenched in despair


In the past month, millions of spectators have watched a fifth of Pakistan disappear underwater and despite more expected rainfall in Pakistan, greater concerns are emerging which will affect the female flood victims most.

A wide array of problems has arisen within the Flood Relief Camps . Many camps do not allow women, forcing them to endure the stress of finding alternate accommodation, regardless the fact that they are frequently accompanied by children and some are pregnant, leaving them alone, to compete with the men in the mayhem created when supplies are delivered. The mixed sex camps have resulted in women and older girls suffering from poor hygiene as a result of inability to wash in public view and sleeping arrangements are also troublesome as often men, women and children of different families have to share shelter which is culturally shameful. Those that employ gender segregation offer the most viable gender-related solution although amid the disorder that follows any shock, one may doubt the existence of such arrangements.

Many overwhelmed humanitarian agencies and government officials have been beaten in providing food and clean water relief by Islamic fundamentalists, which can help them to win the hearts and minds of many of those displaced. This in turn can contribute to instability, particularly around the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that may spiral into a turf war. A recent study by the ICRC investigating the vulnerability of women suggested that “Women are especially susceptible to poverty, exclusion and the sufferings caused by armed conflict when they are already subject to discrimination in times of peace.” Moreover, “The use of sexual violence as a method of warfare and the requirement that women bear more children to replace sons that have died make women especially vulnerable.” Clearly this is one scenario that must be avoided, not just for women but more so for the well-being of the country.

Khalida Jamali, Professor of Economics at the University of Sindh in Pakistan believes in that if women could gain greater rights and access to microfinance they can start to enter the workplace in greater numbers, resulting in considerable gains for the country’s economic development.

Some twenty million people have been affected, but, thankfully, many aid organisations such as UNICEF are actively working in Pakistan to care for children and mothers that have been affected adversely by this atrocious disaster. As this disaster begins to fall out of the headlines, it can all to easily slip out of our minds, however, it is clear that it will take a lot of work to help Pakistan rebuild.

Posted by Rohan Mohanty - GPP Intern in Women & Gender, Environment & Climate for column Issue Analysis on Sep 14th 2010, 06:00

MDG5: Birth and Death


We live in the 21st century, we’ve sent humans to the moon and still every minute a women dies as a result of pregnancy. This video by the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood highlights how a lot of these deaths could be prevented - simply by providing the much needed medical assistance. In the developed world a women is more likely to die in a plane crash, than in childbirth. We’re accustomed to births happening in hospitals, with sterile equipment and in the presence of doctors and midwives wearing clean hospital uniforms. I mean, there’s even a growing movement in America and Europe calling for “demedicalizing birth”!

All this makes the thought that millions of women give birth without ANY assistance almost unbelievable. And sometimes there’s a happy ending to an unattended birth - a healthy mother and baby. But too often their life is in danger, and this movie shows the multitude of reasons why women still don’t get medical assistance even when it’s a matter of life and death.

A lot of times the closest hospital is too far away. Cars are expensive but lack of means of transport to hospital are one of the reasons mothers and their babies die. Villagers in Pitala, Malawi (Southeast Africa) came up with the idea of bicycle ambulances - simple, cost-effective, and it works. Villagers in Pitala are lucky - the hospital is close enough for a bike-ride to be feasible. In a lot of places the closest hospital will be days away.

Sometimes the mother is hemorrhaging and losing a lot of blood - 1 in 4 women who die in childbirth die because of excessive bleeding. Something that almost never happens in the ‘global North’ because there’s a pill, available in every hospital, which can quickly stop the bleeding - Misopostol. It’s a low cost (less than US$2), off-patent, easy to administer drug with few side-effects, which dispensed by a trained birth attendant saves lives. It sounds simple (and it is), but a trained birth attendant with adequate supplies needs to be present. However, globally we are currently lacking 4.3 million health workers - that’s a New Zealand or Croatia worth of doctors, nurses and midwives the world really badly needs to keep women from dying while bringing life into the world!

Lastly, and maybe in some ways most tragically, women all too often die because their families are not willing to pay for their treatment, even when it’s as little as US$3.45. There are still frighteningly many countries, where girls and women are not valued equally to their fathers, brothers and husbands and their health isn’t a priority. This shows that for progress on MDG5 we also need to work towards gender equality - which we've written about recently through the stories of Jess, Exildah and Kakenya.



Posted by Maria Pawlowska in Global Health, Women & Gender for column Millennium Development Goals on Aug 19th 2010, 09:00