06.03.15

Eradicating FGM, Community by Community

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Plan Ireland Programme Officer, Suzanne Walker has just returned from a trip to Guinea Bissau in West Africa, where she was visiting Plan Ireland community projects aimed at eradicating the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In the communities where Plan Ireland is rolling out these projects, FGM rates as high as 95%.

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I was afraid when I started this work. Even to mention the term FGM out loud offended people, but I just said to them – “You can’t imagine the pain I felt. You can’t imagine the problems I am suffering as a result of having endured FGM myself…..but I am making progress, now I have even managed to convince some FGM practitioners to quit.”

This is how Djenabu Sano, community facilitator with Plan’s local partner Renluv, described to me how she draws on her personal experience of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to break the silence around the issue in the community of Gabu in Guinea Bissau  where 95% of women have undergone the practice.

What is FGM?

FGM is a deeply entrenched cultural practice that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is typically performed by women who have no medical training, in unhygienic conditions and without the use of anaesthetics.

Why is it carried out?

The practice is fuelled by a lack of understanding of the harmful effects and the prevalence of myths such as a belief that FGM is prescribed by Islam, or that women and girls who do not undergo the practice are unclean and unfit for marriage. At its roots, is the lower social status of women and girls and the lack of power they have over their lives. Uncut women can face extreme social ostracism and marginalisation.

What damage can it do?

FGM can result in a range of serious physical and mental health issues for women and girls, such as haemorrhage, infections, severe pain and trauma, difficulties in childbirth and even death.

Plan’s Response

Plan has been tackling FGM in the Gabu and Bafata regions of Guinea Bissau since 2012.We are supporting passionate and dedicated community facilities just like Djenabu to raise awareness, facilitate open dialogue and encourage communities to abandon the harmful practice. On my recent visit, I was deeply inspired by the courage and creativity of the community facilitators in broaching this highly sensitive topic in way that is fully respectful of the local culture, even in the face of staunch resistance and threats to their personal safety.

Plan has also brought on board specialised medical professionals to raise awareness of the harmful consequences of FGM and to provide medical support for women and girls suffering serious complications. Through successful lobbying, specialised units to support women and girls that have undergone FGM have been established at the regional hospitals. The challenge now will be to ensure that these units are properly resourced and to support women and girls to travel there for treatment.

Working with ex-practitioners

Another effective strategy used by Plan is to work with ex-practitioners, women who themselves once earned a living by performing excision on young girls, who have since abandoned the practice and are now actively campaigning for its eradication. These women explained to me how they didn’t realise that FGM was causing illness and death. Modern health care is virtually non-existent in Bafata and Gabu, and as a result illness and death are often mysterious and go unexplained.

Involving traditional and community leaders

Plan works in partnership with traditional and religious leaders to spread the message, as they are highly trusted and respected in the local communities. Religious leaders are actively supporting us to tackle the perception that FGM is prescribed by Islam. We also work closely with the government in Guinea Bissau, in particular the Department of Justice and the police, to improve enforcement the law criminalising FGM in the country.

The efforts of Plan, our partners and local campaigners is successfully breaking the silence around FGM and leading to an improved understanding of the connection between FGM and its harmful health consequences in Guinea Bissau. The practice is slowly beginning to be recognised as a violation of rights, and some communities have expressed an intention to publicly declare abandonment of the practice.

While we are making significant progress, we have only reached a fraction of the communities where FGM is widely practiced, and many thousands of young girls remain vulnerable. Globally 140 million women and girls are estimated to have undergone FGM, and unless progress is made a further two million per year are at risk.

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