A UNICEF Report providing a statistical overview and exploring the dynamics of change for the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) has been launched today. The report gives an indication of key statistics and trends on the issue, with data from 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice exists.

Key findings from the report show that girls are less likely to be cut than they were 30 years ago and that support for the practice is declining, although 30 million girls are still at risk of being cut in the next decade.

As FGC is a cross-cutting issue as part of Tostan’s broader community-led development work, data that provides insight into trends of this practice are welcomed. This is especially true for the eight African countries where our recent efforts have been focused.

For Senegal, where Tostan has worked the longest, the most recent data used in the UNICEF Report are from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) 2010.

While these data provide a useful window into the practice as it was some years ago, we anticipate that due to the time lag in the measurement of the practice (explained on page 85 of the Report), changes resulting from Tostan and our partners’ work will only be visible in the DHS 2020 for Senegal.

In Senegal, the age of cutting is generally up to age 10, although up to 75 percent of girls are cut between ages 0 and 4. Given that the majority of our public declarations for FGC abandonment have happened in the last seven years, girls who have not been cut will only show in the DHS at least 10-15 years after a declaration has taken place.

Also with regard to Senegal, the UNICEF Report states that the support for continuing FGC among women and girls has not noticeably declined between surveys.     

This is somewhat surprising and we are trying to learn more about the sampling that took place, where in each region, and whether it was undertaken in the same areas where we have implemented our program and where there have been public declarations.

We know that data are collected at a household level and aggregated at a regional and national level. This means that change seen in one district may be diluted by a lack of change seen or experienced in another district when the data is collated. Unless Tostan’s work impacts on an entire region, it may be practically imperceptible by the DHS. Surveys at district or lower levels could provide a different picture.

As noted by UNICEF, the Report is not an evaluation of any one project or programmatic approach. Tostan, over the past years, has received research studies and external evaluation reports that clearly establish the significant reduction of FGC in areas where we have implemented the Community Empowerment Program and where public declarations were held, as well as a shift in attitudes towards female genital cutting.

One such evaluation summary conducted and written up by the Population Council reads:

“A pre- and post-test comparison-group design was used to evaluate the effect of a community education program on community members’ willingness to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) in rural areas of southern Senegal. Developed by TOSTAN (a Senegalese nongovernmental organization), the education program aimed to empower women through a broad range of educational and health-promoting activities. Our findings suggest that information from the program was diffused widely within the intervention villages, as indicated by improvements in knowledge about and critical attitudes toward FGM/C among women and men who had and had not participated in the program, without corresponding improvement in the comparison villages. The prevalence of FGM/C among daughters aged ten years and younger decreased significantly over time as reported by women who were directly and indirectly exposed to the program, but not among daughters in the comparison villages, suggesting that the program had an impact on family behaviors as well as attitudes. Findings from this study provide evidence-based information to program planners seeking to empower women and discourage a harmful traditional practice.” 

The Effectiveness of a Community-based Education Program on Abandoning Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting in Senegal
Nafissatou J. Diop and Ian Askew
Article first published online: 8 DEC 2009  – DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4465.2009.00213.x
© 2009 The Population Council, Inc.

Overall, the findings of the UNICEF Report support the validity of a human rights-based approach to collective empowerment for the abandonment of FGC. The Report also finds that legislation alone is not enough to end the practice of FGC and calls for measures that complement legislation and leverage positive social dynamics to bring about a change in social norms. It points to the role education can play in bringing about social change.

The Report sets out the following key steps needed to end FGC:

  • Working with local cultural traditions rather than against them, recognizing that attitudes and conformity to FGC vary among groups within and across national borders;
  • Seeking to change individual attitudes about FGC, while addressing the entrenched expectations surrounding the practice across wider social groups;
  • Finding ways to make visible the hidden attitudes that favor the abandonment of FGC so families know that they are not alone – a crucial step to create a necessary critical mass and generate a chain reaction against FGC;
  • Increasing exposure of groups that still practice FGC to groups that do not;
  • Promoting the abandonment of FGC alongside improved status and opportunities for girls, rather than advocating for milder forms of the practice, such as ‘symbolic’ circumcision;
  • Continuing to gather data to inform policies and programs, as a vital part of efforts to eliminate FGC.

These recommendations, which link abandonment of the practice to a change in social norms and community expectations, and emphasize more cross-border working and collective community decision-making, directly correspond to the strategy that Tostan is currently implementing in the eight countries in which we work.