Looking for life, destroying life: Female genital mutilation, part 2

Content warning: This article includes graphic descriptions of violence against women. 

In my last column I discussed the physical, biological and emotional ramifications of female genital mutilation (FGM) and muddled through the gray area of cultural compliance and condoning human rights violations. My stance on this issue is summarized by former President Barack Obama’s statement on FGM in 2016, “Some people say that [FGM] is a rite of passage—something families do to help prepare girls for adulthood or marriage… Just because this is a tradition in some places does not make it right. This practice is harmful, and therefore wrong whenever it occurs.”

According to TIME magazine, the prevalence of FGM has experienced a “huge and significant decline” over the past three decades. This study revealed that FGM rates in East Africa have declined from 71.4% in 1995 to 8% in 2016. This decrease can be attributed to culturally sensitive interventions centered around behavior change, education and altering social norms.

The Saleema initiative was implemented in Sudan to encourage the long-term elimination of FGM. Its goal was to “create positive cultural associations with a girl remaining uncut.” The word “Saleema” means to be intact or as God created her. Hawaa, a victim of FGM, reflects on her experience with FGM, “… my mom and dad didn’t know… about the initiative. When I went back home, I told my mother. She cried—she told me if she knew all of this, she wouldn’t have done it.”

The Saleema initiative recognizes an idea called “normative beliefs.” FGM continues to be passed on from generation to generation because the social norms of the community believe it to be a necessary practice. In addition, when people see everyone in their social circles feeding into the practice, FGM persists.

Saleema, through a four-step process, attempted to change the public’s perception on FGM. The program involved community members publicly pledging to abandon FGM, wearing the Saleema colors to show solidarity and public dialogues to spread positive messaging. These program implementations were then heavily advertised to the public.

Additionally, UNICEF paid attention to men and their crucial role in ending FGM through forums that were specifically tailored for male-identifying community members. There were also efforts to reach out to community leaders, particular Sheikhs (religious leaders), to educate them about the dangers of FGM. Some Sheikhs were actually persuaded to end the practice, while others remained neutral.

The most important component of the Saleema initiative is empowerment and helping women regain autonomy over their bodies. The Saleema pledge reads: “I am Saleema/Because I am strong in my decisions/Because I am not afraid of change/Because what we are learning now is more than what we knew before/Because our whole society is changing for the better.” This study from the Milken Institute School of Public Health reveals that higher levels of exposure to Saleema has decreased pro-FGM social norms in Sudan and proves that multi-level interventions that radiate positivity and growth-centric mindsets can reduce harmful, traditional practices.