From Cutters to Caretakers and Champions: Older People are Needed to Stop FGM/C

Co-authored by Prafulla Mishra, Regional Director at HelpAge International for East, West and Central Africa

This year the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) marks a significant moment in women's history: as a global community, we could eliminate FGM/C within a generation. This can only become a reality, however, if we engage entire communities and use all cultural resources possible to facilitate change. Abandonment campaigns must be inclusive, and must engage some of the most powerful and effective-but too often overlooked-- agents for change: older women and men.

Working with older women and men globally to develop their capabilities, reduce their vulnerabilities and alleviate the challenges within their communities, HelpAge International has proven time and again that older persons are not roadblocks to development. In fact, they are leaders capable of being powerful ambassadors for change in their communities, and should be actively engaged as champions against FGM/C.

Despite the severe medical consequences, in practicing communities FGM/C is often connected to beliefs around marriageability, womanhood, and misconceptions about reproductive health. To be cut, therefore, is not an individual choice taking place in a vacuum - the procedure has significant social and economic bearing for girls and their families. As such, awareness-raising and abandonment efforts that narrowly target the girl-child will continue to be limited in their success. This is particularly true in light of a recent and distressing trend: many communities have begun cutting girls as infants as opposed to adolescents, when they are unable to resist or refuse, and parents are less likely to be caught by authorities (FGM/C is criminalized in many practicing countries).

And yet, a HelpAge analysis of ongoing FGM/C abandonment initiatives revealed that although nearly all actors recognized the influence of older persons - as the custodians of culture, gatekeepers of gender norms and marriage expectations, ascribers of stigma, forgivers of ridicule, and for some older women as the cutters themselves -- very few programmes work with older persons at all, much less consider engaging the community's custodians as critical change agents. If we are to reach the hardest to reach, realize the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all women and girls, and fulfill Sustainable Development Goal 5, abandonment initiatives must adopt more inclusive, community-driven approaches. While we continue to empower the girl-child to abandon FGM/C, we must also empower her support network: her parents, teachers, religious leaders - and importantly, her elders.

"While we continue to empower the girl-child to abandon FGM/C, we must also empower her support network: her parents, teachers, religious leaders - and importantly, her elders"

It is time that development actors recognize and include older people's immense capabilities to promote change in their communities. SAWATA, an association of older persons supported by HelpAge International in the Dodoma region of Tanzania, is leading the charge on culture change. In an interview, SAWATA's General Secretary explained that they have been visiting older persons' councils in surrounding villages to sensitize their elder peers on the negative consequences of the cut. They do so, he said, because "we know that the older people are the ones who are engineering it, are carrying this practice forward. ...Reactions at first were negative because elders believe [in the value of the practice], but now response is getting better and better and better." Similarly, The Grandmother Project's work in Senegal has found that older women have a pivotal role to play in promoting positive cultural values and supporting the health and development of youth, and--if well engaged--can be equally as influential in eliminating harmful traditions including FGM/C.

As SAWATA and The Grandmother Project's work exemplifies, there is an incredible opportunity--and an urgent need--to engage older persons as activists, community leaders and change agents against FGM/C, as with many other community development initiatives. The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals center around a pledge and ringing call to action: Leave No One Behind. If the global community is to see this to reality, duty bearers must not leave anyone out of the process, either. And for FGM/C abandonment in particular, we must not leave out the custodians of culture.


"The recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals center around a pledge and ringing call to action: Leave No One Behind. If the global community is to see this to reality, duty bearers must not leave anyone out of the process, either. And for FGM/C abandonment in particular, we must not leave out the custodians of culture."

On the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM/C, let us call upon all actors to abandon the notion that older women and men are merely a burden and hindrance to change. Let us respect the role of elders in our communities, and actively engage older women and men as the change-makers they are-- for the health, safety and rights of generations of women to come. Finally, let us renew our sense of purpose and commitment to reaching the hardest to reach -- leaving no one behind.