Around the globe, and in communities where Plan International works, girls are taking a stand and leading the fight to end female genital mutilation (FGM).
Creating change around this tradition is no easy feat – FGM is an enduring and deeply embedded practice in many communities. It is seen as an essential part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood, and many girls have mothers and grandmothers who are FGM practitioners. So when a girl challenges FGM, she is not only challenging the practice itself, she is challenging the long-standing and well-intentioned beliefs of family members and loved ones.
However, with the support of Plan International, girls and young women are inspiring a change of attitude around FGM, even within their own families.
When girls are empowered to know their rights and stand up for them, to learn about the risks and long-term effects of FGM, and to take ownership over their own bodies, they can then pass their newfound knowledge onto others, and generate widespread change.
Zainab and Marie are just two of the many girls who are leading the movement in Sierra Leone.
Joining an anti-FGM club when she was 13 changed the course of both Zainab and her mother’s life. A widow and sole breadwinner, Kadiatu had supported her family for more than 20 years through her work as an FGM practitioner. That is, until her own daughter refused to be cut.
For many of us, our parents did not attend school,” explains Zainab, “so they did not know about the dangers of FGM. My mother for example, became a Sowei (the decision makers within Bondo society) when she was very young so she did not have the chance to get an education, and she did not know that FGM was a bad thing to do”
I didn’t want to become a Sowei.” Explains her mother Kadiatu. “I was initiated when I was five and then was forced to become a Sowei when I turned 12. At first, when I did the cutting, the parents of the girls being initiated would pay me to do it, so that is how I earned my living.”
Since joining the Plan International supported anti-FGM club, Zainab has gone from being a member, to the leader, and she assists the facilitator Madam Neneh in arranging educational talks and workshops for children and parents alike.
Now, we know the negative effects of FGM and we are working hard to help raise awareness of what these are. Madam Neneh reaches out to the adults, and my friends and I reach out to our peers and the younger children so that they are also informed.”
We tell them about the child rights act and that children and young people have the right to express their point of view and take part in decision making. That way, they know that if they are not comfortable with what their parents tell them about the Bondo society, then they are allowed to say so and they do not have to be part of it.”
And through her daughter’s activism, Kadiatu has become something of an advocate herself, leaving her career as an FGM practitioner behind.
Before Plan International came here, and before I met Madam Neneh – who is like our mentor here in this community – I thought it was good to do the cutting. So that is why I did it. Because in those days, our parents were not educated and that is what they told us. But now we know it has nothing to do with that. It has no benefit to human life.”
I am really happy that Zainab is an activist. I would have liked to be able to speak out like Zainab does when I was her age because my initiation affected my whole life. It is what stopped me being able to further my education. But, even though I didn’t go to school, at my own level now, I am also campaigning against FGM. I go out and I can talk to more than 100 people about it. So even though I did not go to school, I am doing my best to help.”
For 15-year-old Marie, the likelihood of FGM was high. Her older sister had already undergone the procedure and her own mother – a local Sowei (community decision maker) – was an FGM practitioner. But after taking part in a Plan International supported project at school, Marie refused to undergo FGM, and her activism has changed her mother’s perspective too.
I am totally against the practice of FGM, but it has been my mother’s source of income for my whole life.” Says Marie. “That is how she has been able to take care of us. It’s how she paid for our school books and school uniform, our food – all of our family’s needs. But I only learnt about its negative effects when I went to school. Before that, I thought it was ok. “
At school. Marie participated n ‘My Sexuality My Right’, a project facilitated by Plan International and two local partners, that aims to end the practice of FGM and child marriage. Through the project girls are empowered with the sexual and reproductive knowledge they need to take control of their own bodies and futures.
When I told my mum that I was not willing to be initiated, I was fortunate because she supported my decision. There have been a lot of events in our community over the past few years to help the Soweis learn about the harm that they have been doing. And also, what I learn in school about FGM, I come and explain to my mum at home.” She says.
I share it with my dad as well, and the younger kids in the community too. And I think they are proud of my work as an activist. They listen to what I say. And that’s important. In the community, all parents should feel proud that their daughters are now campaigning against the harmful practices and traditions that affect them and hold them back.”
And despite going against the status quo, Marie’s commitment to ending FGM has enabled her to take on a leadership role within her community.
“I’ve been a mentor in my school for the past year and I really enjoy what I do. Previously, it was people from the big towns like Kabala who would come to our village and talk to us about FGM, whereas now, we are the ones taking the lead and raising awareness ourselves.”
Not only is FGM becoming less prevalent locally, but Marie’s activism has also had a profound impact on her mother, Mammy Simity too –
“I’m a Sowei, which means I am a practitioner of FGM.” She says. “But since my daughter has been campaigning against it – and since we have found out about the negative effects of FGM – I have not carried out the procedure for over two years.”
I was cut myself when I was a child. And at that time I was willing to go through the process because according to our tradition you are not a complete woman until you have been initiated into the Bondo society. So I was willing to be part of it. “
I feel really proud of my daughter. I think if more girls do what she is doing then it will be possible to eradicate the practice of FGM. Since our daughters have been campaigning against this, it has already reduced the rate of girls being taken for that particular activity. So it is now two years since we have done anything around FGM in this community. I think that’s a good thing.”
And how does Marie feel to know that her voice is having such an impact?
In the past, girls wouldn’t be allowed to speak out in public very much.” She says. “But now, things are changing. It is a great feeling to know that I am helping to make a difference.”
We’re working with girls like Marie and Zainab in communities around the globe to end the practice of FGM.
Through a variety of outreach sessions and intergenerational dialogues within the community, many aimed at practitioners themselves, Plan International builds widespread awareness around the risks of FGM. We also offer vocational training and economic empowerment opportunities for FGM practitioners, to assist them in leaving the trade behind and finding a new source of income to support their families.