Last Friday, the Senegalese Government launched a National Action Plan for achieving its goal of total abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) by 2015. This may not seem noteworthy as governments around the world launch plans and programs on this and other development issues each year: some are good, many go unnoticed or unfunded, still others never really get off the ground.
Yet this action plan is something unique and it deserves our full attention. This is a rare case of a government willing not only to respond to the will of its people, but willing to respond with care and to implement a strategy that was developed and proven first at the grassroots level.
FGC is a painful and dangerous practice, yet laws passed by governments across Africa have for decades had little effect because FGC is a cultural practice linked to status, honor, and marriageability. In many countries it is simply impossible to enforce these laws because large percentages of the population still practice FGC and it is simply impossible to imprison all of the hundreds of mothers, fathers, and other family members who have their daughters cut. Thus, even in Senegal where a law banning FGC was passed in 1999, the practice has continued unabated in many communities.
The number of communities in Senegal still practicing FGC, however, is shrinking rapidly as the result of a widespread social movement. The movement began in 1997 when a group of 30 women going through the Tostan education program in the village of Malicounda Bambara decided to abandon the practice publicly. A local village chief, Demba Diawara, joined the women's efforts and showed Tostan that to end FGC, one must work respectfully with the whole community and its extended social network and hold public commitment ceremonies to mark abandonment.
Since 1997, thousands of community activists have joined the movement that those first 30 women started and over the past 14 years their collective efforts have built a movement that now includes over 4,200 communities in Senegal, Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Guinea, and Somalia that have publicly declared their abandonment of FGC.
This movement is an example of how lasting social change can occur through the leadership of informed grassroots activists: mothers and fathers, youth, and traditional and religious leaders. Yet, such movements still need support and reinforcement. In making a formal endorsement of the human rights approach in their National Action Plan, the Government of Senegal has made a bold and historic move. The government has chosen to give highest priority to a coordinated strategy rooted in empowering communities through human rights education to bring about the total abandonment of FGC by 2015.
For too long now, many have believed that the best way to address this issue is punitive legislation. Laws can punish, but laws combined with effective policy can educate and empower communities. Yes, there must be laws against FGC, but there must also be support for the transition to a system in which those laws can be effectively and justly applied. In Tostan's experience, this transition involves communities understanding and applying their human rights and responsibilities, and it is wonderful to see this so clearly laid out by the Senegalese government. I am certain that this movement, and the government's deepened commitment to it, can become a model for addressing other harmful social traditions as well.
To seek to understand FGC and why families practice it is not to excuse it. The families Tostan works with have often suffered the consequences of the practice. The women and girls have experienced hemorrhage, serious infection, and complications during childbirth. Some parents have even watched their daughters die. The government has a duty to protect these young girls.
I am thankful however that the 2010-2015 Government of Senegal National Action Plan places priority on empowering education and working respectfully with those communities involved to bring about positive social change. I believe millions of girls will be thankful also.