Achieving what we once thought impossible: an end to harmful traditional practices

Molly Melching and the women of Malicounda Bamabara celebrate at an event commemorating the 10 year anniversary of their community’s decision to abandon the practice of female genital cutting. Photo credit: Tostan

Molly Melching, Founder and Executive Director of Tostan, blogs about their work to end female genital cutting in Senegal and how this might inform efforts to end child marriage and other harmful traditional practices.

I clearly remember the day when Maimouna Traore, a dynamic woman leader from Malicounda Bambara, Senegal, stepped up in front of a crowd of community members and journalists in July, 1997 to announce an unprecedented change in the social traditions of her community: the village of Malicounda Bambara would abandon the traditional practice of female genital cutting.

Maimouna and fellow community members had participated in human rights and health discussions facilitated through Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). They began to question whether the practice of female genital cutting was really necessary for their families and community. Ultimately, after many discussions in each neighborhood, they decided that to ensure better health and well-being for all, it was necessary to initiate positive change. In short, the whole village decided to end the practice together.

We soon found out, however, that one village cannot abandon such a deeply entrenched practice alone. Demba Diawara, religious leader and CEP participant from Keur Simbara explained: “Beyond one village are many other villages where the extended family is living. If others do not agree with the decision to end female genital cutting, we will have insurmountable problems. Our girls will have no husbands since this is an important requirement for marriage in our ethnic group.”

With great determination, Demba walked to communities linked to his to raise awareness about the harmful consequences of female genital cutting. The efforts of both Demba and the village of Malicounda Bambara culminated in one pivotal event in February 1998: the first multi-community public declaration for the abandonment of female genital cutting in Senegal.

What we’ve learnt: how positive social change can happen

I share this story of how change began in rural Senegal because it highlights what is necessary for positive social change to occur. Though child/forced marriage is notably different from female genital cutting, both are traditional practices that can result in negative health consequences for girls and women. Both are also shaped by the social expectations, scripts, and norms that people have grown up with.

Based on our collaborations with local leaders like Demba and Maimouna, social change theorists Professors Gerry Mackie and Cristina Bicchieri, and the experiences of similar large-scale movements around the world, we have found that three essential elements are necessary for positive social change to take place: empowering education, outreach to inter-connected social groups, and a collective public pledge to mark the end of the practice.

Tostan’s 30-month, human rights-based education programme, the Community Empowerment Program, provides a space for dialogue on human rights and responsibilities, health, hygiene, and problem solving. Led by a local facilitator, participants have the opportunity not only to access new information, but also to discuss whether or not they see that information as valuable and relevant to their community. Importantly, this empowering education doesn’t focus on only one issue or even one sector, but allows people to articulate a wide-range of their needs and aspirations, and discuss their values as a group.

Equally essential is extending this process outwards, so that people interact beyond the family and even community level. The process of organised diffusion, whereby participants reach out to others in their own village and then travel near and far to share ideas and information with their social network, both reinforces and extends the impact of their decisions.

Once there is consensus around a given topic, for example abandoning female genital cutting, communities organise a public declaration. At this celebratory event, community members, traditional and religious leaders, local and national government authorities and the media, gather to hear the reasons for ending the practice. This step is essential because it solidifies the collective decision made by participating communities and allows everyone to see that their extended family also agrees to the pledge.

Applying the same approach to social change to encourage the abandonment of child/forced marriage, thousands of communities with which we partner have also declared their abandonment of child/forced marriage. In most communities, men know they will now be sanctioned by the community if they seek to marry a girl under 18.

Building momentum; sharing stories of success

This movement to abandon harmful traditional practices is gaining momentum: over 6,000 communities in West and East Africa have now publically declared their abandonment of female genital cutting and child/forced marriage.

Although the pace of social change is never even or predictable, I believe there is great hope for the people themselves making the collective decision to abandon these practices in the coming years. We are learning fascinating things about how these declarations work, where they have only worked partially, and how this is often not a failure, but a sign that change is spreading further after each declaration since one declaration can result in many more.

Every time I speak to a determined Tostan programme participant at a public declaration, I feel certain that this broad-scale change is possible. The Maimouna Traore’s of the world are the ones living with these practices, they are the ones who will lead the change, and they are the ones whose daughters and granddaughters will benefit. Community-led strategies designed to let the people themselves lead – of which Tostan is but one example of many – offer a tremendous opportunity to see positive social change that was once thought impossible.

This is why Tostan is proud to be a member of the Girls Not Brides campaign. This platform has the power to tell stories of success where change is happening, and take steps to see that the vast world of advocates for positive change can coordinate their actions to create a supportive environment.