Ambrogio LorenzettiEffetti del Buon Governo (Effects of Good Government), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, 1337-1340

Supporting Abandonment of Female Genital Cutting

      Female genital cutting (FGC) is a painful and dangerous practice, and irreversibily reduces a valued human capacity in the absence of meaningful consent.  It affects at least 100 million women across some thirty countries in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and threatens three million young girls each year.  The cutting is arranged by the girl’s family, usually by the mother and close female relatives, and takes place between shortly after infancy to before the onset of puberty (rarely, on the eve of marriage or after birth of the first child).  Depending on local custom it ranges in intensity from a mild pricking of the prepuce of the clitoris, to the removal of part or all of the clitoris and labia minora, to complete excision of the labia minora and the inner walls of the labia majora, followed by suturing of the vulva using thorns or stitches.  Age of cutting and type of cutting varies between groups, but varies little within groups. 

      Immediate and delayed health complications  are more rigorously measured in recent years, and for some there may be psychological complications as well.  Concern over the practice is prominent in international human rights discourse and the activities of international organizations.  Dozens of programs have sought progress in its abandonment.  Yet, the practice has been remarkably persistent.  

      Parents love their children and want to do best for them.   That is why parents arrange FGC for their daughters:  in the circumstances they encounter that is how they advance the marriageability and future welfare of their daughters.  Once it is discovered that a community can be organized to collectively abandon the practice, most parents would be happy to do so, again, out of love for their children.  

     I carried out a comparative-historical and game-theoretic analysis of footbinding in China and female genital cutting (FGC) in Africa, published in American Sociological Review (1996).  I argued that there are many strong parallels between the two practices.  Each originated in ancient empires, in its origins was associated with chastity and fidelity, is linked to marriageability, is persistent across centuries, is general within the intramarrying group, and is practiced even by those who oppose it.  Female genital cutting was stubbornly persisent, continuing even among those who opposed the practice.  Footbinding, however, which had been general in China for centuries, ended suddenly at the beginning of the 20th century.  The people there organized Natural Foot Societies whose members pledged not to bind their daughters' feet, and if enough families joined a local society then they could safely marry their daughters to one another.  

      These observations are best explained, I argued, by an adaptation of the game theorist Thomas Schelling’s model of convention as a coordination game.  The practices originated in circumstances of imperial female slavery to control the fidelity of the many consorts held by emperor and nobility, and were emulated by lower strata wanting to move their daughters up.  The practice persists long after originating conditions have faded – just as driving on the left persists in England and driving on the right in France whatever were the originating acts – because no one family can give it up on their own, to do so ruins the future of their daughter.  It is general in the intramarrying group, and continues even among those who oppose it, for the same reason.  If the practice is such a convention, then the only way to give it up is a coordinated abandonment by a large enough proportion of the families in the intramarrying group.  

      In my article, I predicted that the methods used to end footbinding in China would be fruitful in helping end FGC in Africa.  In 1998 I read in the newspaper that a village in Senegal had the year before declared an end to FGC in their intramarrying group, that neighboring villages had now joined in the pledge, and that villages far away in another ethnic group had undergone the same process.  At the end of that year I visited the nongovernmental organization Tostan in Senegal for two weeks, confirmed that these developments were consistent with my armchair predictions, and began a long exchange of theoretical and practical ideas with Tostan and its remarkable director, Molly Melching. I served as an unpaid adviser to the effort there, which has spread through 3,500 villages, in 35 separate public declarations of abandonment.  In the 90s, many FGC projects reported attitude change, but not behavioral change, I contend because their efforts aimed at individuals rather than at communities of reciprocal expectation.    

      I visited Senegal (and rural Guinea-Conakry) for 30 days in the summer of 2004, where I attended a public declaration of abandonment by delegates from 96 villages,  and carried out about 50 interviews in diverse settings; the Egyptian Coptic town of Deir al Barsha in 2005, where  Coptic Evangelical Organization for Social Services had independently invented similar methods and effectively obtained community abandonment; urban Guinea again for a week in 2006; and the Afar District of Ethiopia in 2007 where we visited a nomadic group which had abandoned using similar methods.  

      Tostan has organized replications in Djibouti, The Gambia, Guinea-Conakry, Mauritania, and even Somalia, involving and training local NGOs, and in 2007 won the Hilton Humanitarian PrizeCEOSS in Egypt has carried the effort to additional Coptic towns; Kembatta Mentti Gezzima in Ethiopia has organized widespread abandonments in a region of one million people by their own invention and adaptation of holistic, human-rights, community dialogue methods, and Wohi Reddu assisted the organization of collective abandonments among the Afari; Fulda-Mosocho in Kenya claims strong results using such methods; national programs in Sudan and Egypt are experimenting with large-scale replications, and already there are public commitments of abandonment in several Egyptian communities.  Doubtless there is much valuable activity elsewhere which escapes my attention.  

      We helped change some of the vocabulary about FGC, for example, no longer speaking about its "eradication" by experts but rather of its "abandonment" decided upon by free public deliberations among the people who inherited it from their forebears.  It is supremely important to emphasize that these results are not due to a few wise outsiders, but are due to years of effort by thousands of people, almost all of them Africans.  Demba Diawara in Senegal (pictured with me on the main page), for instance, was the one who originally explained to Tostan that the practice could only end by recruiting all of the communities which traditionally intermarried with his village to a joint public declaration of abandonment.  When we first met in 1998 we had many conversations comparing our ideas and observations.  The organized abandonments are the work of many devoted individuals, and in the end of the larger part of the whole community.  The process is positive, celebratory, and forward-looking, not negative, rebuking, or backward-looking.  The programs support beneficial changes in many areas, not just FGC, such as early and forced marriage, marriage by abduction, literacy and numeracy, project management, child health, birth registration, girls' school attendance, microcredit, and so on.  Although Tostan was the first to show mass abandonments, other organizations have invented and adapted similar methods, sometimes with spectacular results.  The basic recipe works with either millet, wheat, or teff.  

      I started working closely with UNICEF, its Child Protection Section and its Innocenti Research Centre, in 2004, advising on the production of a widely-distributed best practices document, Ending a Harmful Social Convention, an international abandonment plan, Coordinated Strategy to End FGM/C in One Generation, and currently a comparative analysis of abandonment programs in five major practicing countries.  

      It is widely acknowledged that good social science research has made a big difference for the abandonment of FGC, not least by clarifying what is happening in communities and thereby accelerating the propagation of effective methods.  More comprehensive research would be of intrinsic scientific interest and would  contribute to the advance of more effective operations.  That is why I seek  support from individuals, foundations, and governmental organizations for my research on the topic.  

Near Ziguinchor, Senegal, 2004

Organizing Basic Education, Ziguinchor

 Basic Education Class, Near Labe,Guinea-Conakry, 2004

Participants Arriving to Intervillage Meeting for Organizing Public Declaration of Abandonment, Ziguinchor, Senegal

Discussion at Intervillage Meeting, Ziguinchor

Adolescents Display Human Rights Placards, Medina Samba Kande Public Declaration, Kolda, Senegal, 2004

Joyous Song, Medina Samba Kande Public Declaration

More than a Thousand in Attendance:  Delegates from 96 Participating Villages; National and Local Notables; and Here are Delegates from Villages in Neighboring Guinea Contemplating Abandonment

Day-Long Event Culminates in Public Declaration of Coordinated Abandonment, Covered by National and Local Media

Hey, the Toubab Dances!  Ziguinchor, 2004

This Nomadic Afari Community in Ethiopia Organized a Collective Abandonment (NGO:  Wohi Reddu), 2007