Creating New Rituals to Replace Harmful Practices

Public Declaration: Mr. Allassane Drabo, Country Director, Plan International Guinea-Bissau, adding his signature to the declaration of abandonment of FGM (2017)
Photo: Public Declaration: Mr. Allassane Drabo, Country Director, Plan International Guinea-Bissau, adding his signature to the declaration of abandonment of FGM (2017)
Harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), are complex problems that are often tied to deep-rooted cultural and religious beliefs. As a result, combatting FGM requires a complex and multi-leveled process. In Guinea-Bissau, Plan International partnered with local NGOs and the European Commission to facilitate discussions and educational sessions about the dangers of FGM with various members of the community involved or impacted by FGM. These members include the women and girls at risk or victims of FGM, the local “cutter”, religious leaders, the village chief or mayor as well as medical professionals. This process of raising awareness has resulted in using public declarations to abandon the practice. Public declarations have a special significance in Guinea-Bissau. Holding a public declaration on abandoning FGM highlights the importance of the issue to a community. During the public declaration the former “cutter” preforms the ritual dance associated with preforming FGM. While the crowd sings about her putting her knife down for the last time, she throws her knife in the community latrine. To conclude the ritual, key members of the community, such as the Imam, the mayor or chief, and the “cutter”, make speeches about the abolishment of FGM in their community and their commitment to protect the girls in their community from FGM. 
Plan International has implemented this tactic in 19 villages in the Bafata and Gabu regions of Guinea-Bissau. Five villages have made a public declaration abandoning FGM and others have expressed that they wish to abolish the practice. Sustainability is a big challenge when addressing harmful practices such as FGM. Plan International included income generating and savings approaches to offer alternatives for the loss of livelihood for 19 women and 6 men “cutters”. In addition, one village identified over 2,000 girls as vulnerable to FGM and will monitor them to ensure that they do not become victims. Sensitization and education efforts reached 17,535 parents and teachers across Guinea-Bissau who completed sexual and reproductive health training, which discusses the dangers of FGM. 
Nearly 140 million girls and women worldwide are victims of FGM, which is defined as the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. In addition to facilitating oppressive beliefs on women’s sexuality and purity, FGM can also cause severe bleeding, infertility, complications during childbirth, infections and in extreme cases death. FGM is primarily practiced in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East. In Guinea-Bissau, over half the women and girls have undergone FGM and that number rises to 93% in the Bafata and Gabu regions. 
Plan International began working in Guinea-Bissau by partnering with local NGOs, like Renluv and Accompaniment of Socio-Community Action Forces (NGO AFASCO), who share the same goal. These organizations helped Plan International identify key actors who were important in stopping FGM and the reasons behind the practice in the community.
Plan International built two medical and psychological counseling clinics, one in Bafata and one in Gabu to treat victims’ health needs and the consequences of FGM. In addition to providing physical and psychological treatment for their patients, clinic staff educates victims and their families on the dangers of FGM. Teams of nurses were trained to provide community outreach and treatment using mobile kits via bicycle transportation. These nurse teams screened 2,200 girls and women and identified 740 with FGM complications, referring 28 with very serious FGM complications for hospital treatment. 
After establishing the clinics, Plan International and its local partners, began dialogues with various members of the community. These dialogues take different shapes depending on the community member Plan International is addressing. For example, when working with girls at risk of FGM, Plan International uses “child to child” and “parent to child” techniques where children are educated on the dangers of FGM. Poetry, theater and artwork are used to communicate those risks to their peers and their parents. Plan International also talks with village chiefs and mayors, religious leaders, FGM “cutters” and medical professionals. Through these discussions with these various community members Plan International and its local partners are able to address the many factors contributing to the practice of FGM.  
Plan International and its local partners meet with the local religious leaders, in many cases the local Imam, to discuss the connection between Islam and FGM. In partnership with Plan International, many Islamic organizations have advertised that the Koran does not mandate FGM and have encouraged other religious leaders to also no longer condone the practice. Local medical professionals work with Plan International to educate community leaders, parents and “cutters” on the health risks involved in FGM. This education helps convince community members to stop FGM and many, especially former “cutters,” join Plan International in advocating and educating others on the dangers of FGM. These new advocates – former victims, parents, religious and community leaders, medical professionals and former “cutters” – communicate this message to the rest of the community. 
After there is a consensus and the community agrees that they want to abolish FGM, a public declaration is held. The practice of public declarations arose out of the movement to ensure clean water and sanitation through building community latrines. Public declarations were highly effective in maintaining community commitments regarding sanitation. Using public declarations to mark a community’s commitment to end FGM is a new application of this powerful community ritual. The public declaration highlights the significance and connection of the “cutter” to finish the ritual dance by throwing her knife into the community latrine. The public declaration provides focus for the importance and dialogue on FGM as well as accountability of the community to sustain its commitment to protect their girls from FGM. In one village, the Imam also planted a tree outside of the local mosque and stated that the tree should never see another victim of FGM pass by it, symbolizing Islam’s condemnation of FGM. 
Plan International has also implemented similar anti-FGM campaigns in Ethiopia and Egypt although they have some small differences in the implementation due to the different cultural contexts. 
Plan International was founded in 1937 with the goal of advancing children’s rights and equality for girls. Plan International is active in 71 countries advancing children’s rights. Plan International began working in Guinea-Bissau in 1989. The campaign to combat FGM in the regions of Gabu and Bafata took place over a three year period, from 2015 to 2017.

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