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Ending female genital cutting in West Africa: A great success story

Today, the NY Times ran a profoundly important story –a news piece and accompanying video — about successful efforts to end the practice of female genital cutting in Senegal.

Sadly, cutting — often described in the West as female genital mutilation (FGM) — had become such an ingrained practice that even for a parent who recognized it as a harmful act, it still seemed “rational” to subject their daughters to the ritual. Typically, such parents would explain that without the cutting, locally recognized to insure a woman’s fidelity, their daughter would not be able to find a husband, and she and the family would be sanctioned in other ways. Such logic has  helped sustain a practice that resulted in countless injuries and deaths and almost 100 million women having parts of their genitals removed.

But this is changing. And what is so amazing about the story is the message it sends to those who view adverse cultural practices as immutable. Clearly, this is an instance of culture having had a profoundly negative impact on human development – putting the health, happiness, and empowerment of girls at severe risk. And local people are taking it upon themselves to create a better life for girls and women by standing up to long established norms.

However, I don’t think the Times did a very good job of explaining how it has been possible for about 5000 villages to rid themselves of a practice that is thought to pre-date Islam in the region. As the article does point out, local social change agents associated with the organization Tostan have been encouraging people to abandon the practice through steadfast advocacy and without heavy handed or overtly judgmental approaches. But my understanding from a Tostan official who gave a lecture at NYU a few years ago is that a real cornerstone of their strategy has involved getting communities together in large, very public, face-to-face meetings.  They bring together intermarrying groups, and collectively decide to abandon the practice after engaging in sustained education campaigns within those communities.

I would surmise that it is this final public proclamation that really solves the coordination problem: Without it, parents might not believe that everyone else would stop the practice, and then they would fear being the only ones abandoning it, potentially rendering their daughter unmarriageable. By bringing everyone together to announce their understanding of the problem, and their intentions to spare their daughters and/or to not adversely judge girls who have not been cut – this heightens the likelihood that each individual will adhere to the new norms, because each can have reasonable confidence that everyone will do the same.

It’s a great lesson for how to achieve social change.

About Evan Lieberman

I am a Professor of Political Science at MIT, and I conduct research, write, and teach about development, ethnic politics, and research methods.

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