The woman who is inspiring Africans to turn against female genital mutilation
A revolutionary education programme that has saved tens of thousands of African girls from female genital mutilation could work in London, claims the woman behind the scheme.
The community empowerment programme, set up in Senegal by American Molly Melching, is having a domino effect as village after village declares its daughters will no longer be cut.
The scheme has been so effective that experts believe the country could be free from FGM by 2015.
Under the scheme, villagers take part in a three-year education programme where they learn about human rights and other subjects including health and literacy. At the end, communities often decide to hold “declaration ceremonies” where they vow together to abandon FGM.
A version of the Senegalese programme is already being taught among diaspora communities in Paris and it is believed that a similar scheme could work in London.
Ms Melching said: “A modified version of our community empowerment programme — one that is adapted to the unique needs of the diaspora community in London — could extend the reach of human rights, education, hygiene and health, literacy and project management, as well as spread the knowledge of the social change taking place in their own home countries.”
But Ms Melching warned that it can be harder to change attitudes towards FGM among people who have left Africa. She said: “Often, people who have moved away from their home communities hold on to practices that perhaps their communities have abandoned and they don’t know they have done so — they often feel they need to hold on to these cultural practices to keep connected to the community and to prove that they have not turned their back on their traditions.”
So far, more than 5,000 villages in Senegal have abandoned FGM. Experts believe that the snowball effect of the programme will help it to reach a critical mass and the practice will be wiped out within a generation in the same way that foot binding was in China.
Ms Melching set up the NGO Tostan in the Nineties and at first, its three-year education programme made no mention of FGM, which Ms Melching and Tostan staff refer to as “female genital cutting”.
She believed that it was too sensitive a subject for an outsider to broach. However, Ms Melching revealed that the moment she changed her mind was when her nine-year-old daughter Zoe, who had been brought up in Senegal, asked her if she could be cut in the same way that her Senegalese friends were going to be.
In her biography, Ms Melching said she was “stunned” at her daughter’s request, and the fact she was feeling the pressure of the tradition even though she was American.
She said: “It was a very decisive moment in my own understanding of the power of FGC, and I knew now what I had to do.”
Ms Melching then decided to add an extra module to her community empowerment programme, which included a discussion about human rights and women’s rights.
In 1997, a group of Senegalese women who had taken the class in a village called Malicounda Bambara spontaneously announced that they would end the practice of female genital mutilation. The news spread to neighbouring villages, and more and more communities eventually made the same decision.
Melinda Gates, wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Hillary Clinton have both visited Senegal to see the revolutionary programme in action. “Molly Melching saw a deeply disturbing but deeply entrenched practice and refused to accept that it couldn’t be stopped,” said Mrs Clinton. “Her relentless efforts are proof that commitment and partnership can drive transformational change.”
‘We chase the cutters away now’
Coumba Dia worked as a “cutter” for 30 years and has lost count of the number of girls she saw in that time.
Struggling to recall, the 50-year-old mother of 10 thinks it totalled more than 1,000 — mostly baby girls of around eight days old who were brought to her by their families. For each procedure she was paid around 1,000 Senegalese francs (about £1.50) and some soap.
Working in the Fouta, an extremely conservative part of Senegal, she saw the most extreme type of FGM being practised. Known as “infibulation”, it involves sewing the baby’s vagina shut. Later in life when the girl was about to get married, Coumba would “prepare” her by reopening the wound so the marriage could be consummated.
Shading her eyes from the sun, Coumba said it is not unusual for girls to be brought over from Europe by families who want to hold on to the traditions of their mother country.
During her time as a cutter the oldest woman she worked on was a 35-year-old mother of two. As well as the new born babies there were also toddlers and some 10 and 12-year-old girls.
But after three decades of cutting, Coumba made a life-changing decision and abandoned the practice. The turning point came after a teacher from the NGO Tostan came to her village and she embarked on a 30-month education programme. Her decision did not happen overnight, but after learning about the health risks associated with FGM Coumba declared she would never cut another girl, and her village also pledged to abandon the practice. She was so convinced by the arguments against FGM that she started going from village to village to spread the word.
In a quiet but determined voice, she said: “After I abandoned cutting, people still brought me girls but I refused until everyone knew I would no longer do it. Sometimes cutters come from Mauritania to the villages but we chase them out.” Coumba and a group of other local cutters now earn their money as seamstresses. Despite her past, Coumba’s own daughters and nieces today remain uncut.