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Abandoning Harmful Practices

August 28, 2010

One afternoon, despairing at the thought of learning yet more French vocabulary, it seemed time to begin the mammoth task of attempting to build up my understanding of the practice of FGM, and of the web of factors that influence it’s perpetration.

The act of sitting down to dedicate an afternoon to reading on this however made me question my own interest in the topic. In the western press the issue of FGM is one which immediately sparks a range of emotions amongst readers, from intrigue, to horror, to condemnation (all of which are fully displayed on the Guardian’s online comment section). For many the next thought is naturally a feeling of wanting to understand why it occurs.

The issue of FGM sparks a natural intrigue, partly because it is a practice which seems strange and foreign (comparable to say, the enduring interest in the practice of witchcraft in some communities), but also because for most people the act itself initially seems utterly incomprehensible. Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune in their analysis of the social dynamics surrounding FGM, hit the nail on its head when he cites the primary question people face when they start to ask ‘why?’:

“How can families who love their daughters perpetuate a tradition that threatens their child’s immediate health, puts them at risk for significant long term health problems, and violates their right to develop to full potential?”

Mackie and LeJeune attempt to answer this question by applying social convention theory to the practice of FGM. Social convention theory simply offers an explanation for ‘how certain harmful social practices are self-enforcing social conventions, why they are universal in a community and why they are strongly resistant to change.’ Describing the theory’s applicability to FGM, Mackie and LeJeune rest their assumptions on the single, powerful idea that ‘parents love their children and ultimately want to do what is best for them’. FGM is carried out by families who want to ensure the marriage ability of their daughters, and hence no single mother, father or family, can stop this practice alone, as it would significantly impact upon their daughter’s marriage prospects.

Whilst acknowledging that practices of FGM are diverse and have no single root, looking into the origins of FGM Mackie and LeJeune look more broadly at a number of other restrictive practices considered to be harmful to women, including foot binding in China. The common thread between these practices was their likely origins in situations of extreme inequality, where marrying into a higher social class was a means for a woman to escape poverty. In pursuit of fidelity from their wives, wealthy men would impose ‘fidelity control practices’, such as foot binding in China (to limit physical mobility), seclusion of women and the imposition of modest dress in Southwest Asia,  and clitoridectomy (to suppress female desire) and infibulation (for complete control of chastity) in Africa. Although these practices may have been initially forcibly enforced upon women, over time they may also become internally imposed upon women by women themselves. A harmful practice such as foot binding or FGM  may rapidly move from a fidelity control practice to a prerequisite for marriage when families from all social classes adopt the practice to give their daughter a necessary competitive advantage at marriage. Although likely originating in extremely unequal societies, once such a practice becomes a ‘norm’, it is likely to perpetuate over time even after inequality has reduced.

Marriage therefore, strongly desirable for personal, social and economic reasons, plays an important role in perpetuating the practice. Within this context, Mackie and LeJeune state, two single powerful beliefs become crucial in locking this norm into place; the belief that a man would not marry an uncut woman, and that an uncut woman would not be a faithful wife.

At the same time Mackie and LeJeune acknowledge the influence of several other commonly cited factors; patriarchy and religion. Patriarchal institutions for example can make women depending upon marriage for socioeconomic reasons, removing any choice a woman may have in questioning the practice. Similarly, although no religion requires FGM (it is commonly associated with Islam, however this is nowhere cited within scripture), the lack of separation between religion and traditional beliefs means that practices of FGM may have taken upon additional dimensions. For the Bambara in Mali for example, FGM is also a process of spiritual cleansing; the word for FGM in bambara means ‘ablution’ or ‘ceremonial washing’.

Using this model as his basis, Mackie and LeJeune then make a number of assertions concerning the necessary conditions for ending a harmful practice such as FGM.

Firstly, although FGM may be considered to be a social norm, it is possible that abandonment may occur within a village if a ‘tipping point’, a large enough portion of people, is created and is willing to change behaviour. This tipping point can be achieved by mobilizing a ‘critical mass’; a relatively small group of people seeking change who have an incentive to recruit other members of the community to join them.

In order that the change in behaviour within a community is stable, Mackie and LeJeune cite the need for a public commitment, so that members of intermarrying communities are actively aware of the abandonment. Key here is a change in expectations; where as before family x may believe that most other families expect FGM to happen, after the declaration family x would believe that most other families do not have any expectations of FGM taking place. To give an example Mackie and LeJeune point towards the NGO Tostan working in Senegal. Although the average Senegalese village size is about 800, Tostan have managed to facilitate abandonment in 3,5000 villages through mobilizing as few as 50 people in each village.

This begs the question however of how to mobilize the critical mass? This is particularly problematic within contexts of near universality of FGM, where as Mackie and LeJeune state ‘if almost every girl and women is genitally cut within one’s horizon, then there is no basis for even conceiving of being uncut as an alternative’.  Where as in a previous post I framed FGM in terms of a difficult choice that could be made, although this may be true in some contexts, Mackie and LeJeune importantly note that for many the idea of not being cut simply does not exist as an alternative. In the case of such universality, women furthermore have no reason to associate common health problems with the practice of FGM; if they are prevalent among all women, then such problems too can become normalized, and not be considered as unusual, or unavoidable.

Returning to the case of footbinding in China however, Mackie and LeJeune describe the steps that were taken to introduce ending the practice as a feasible alternative. Firstly, reformers educated populations on the fact the communities outside of China did not practice footbinding; raising the idea of the alternative. Secondly, people were educated on the many disadvantages of bound feet, and thirdly, ‘natural foot societies’ were formed, in which members pledged to not bind their daughter’s feet, and to not let their son’s marry women with bound feet. After over a thousand years of being practiced, in a single generation early in the 20th century, the practice of footbinding was permanently stopped.

Returning to FGM however, Mackie and LeJeune highlight the many complexities inherent within this process. Even if the idea of not being cut has been introduced as a possibility, and the value of this has been acknowledged, a large leap in thinking would need to take place before it is acknowledged that it is possible that a man would realistically accept an uncut woman. Different NGOs have tackled this issue in creative ways; the NGO KMG for example, working in Ethiopia, organised public weddings of uncut women to prove that uncut girls were in fact marriageable.

At the same time, even if the alternative has been accepted, in practical terms it still remains a huge unknown, and naturally questions such as ‘would it work?’ and ‘if

it failed, would it ruin the marriage ability of my daughter?’ arise. Returning to the case of Tostan in Senegal, Mackie and LeJeune share their experience that the first abandonment in an area is the most difficult, as there are no other visible examples of the commitment’s success.  As a way to overcome this problem however, Tostan has before send village delegates to witness to successful abandonments in other regions, who have then returned and successfully organized abandonments of their own.

Although seeing the application of social convention theory to the origins and perpetration of FGM as basic model, Mackie and LeJeune also point out that a focus on the marriage ability dimensions of the practice of FGM alone ignores the importance of social norms (an accepted rule: for example that a man should not shake a women’s hand) in reinforcing the practice in many communities. Upholding social norms is important in maintaining individual and family acceptance within a community, and can manifest itself in, for example, the exertion of peer pressure on an uncut wife by a wife who has been cut. Although in this instance FGM may not be required for marriage ability, it would be in the individual’s self interest to be cut to avoid feelings of shame, and increase acceptance. When such social norms are also linked with initiation rites, for example into secret societies in Sierra Leone which represent transition into adulthood, then it is important to realize that stopping FGM may not be as (relatively) simple as breaking its link with marriage ability.

Recognising this, Mackie and LeJeune therefore stress the importance of the integration of human rights education into any programme working to end the practice of FGM. Where as initial education on the dangers of FGM can provide important information for communities on the benefits of uncutting in health terms, it does not address the social norms associated with cutting, and risks a medicalization of the practice. According to Mackie and LeJeune however, the introduction of participatory human rights education enables the revision of social norms. Once people realize that they have human rights, they attach a significant value to protecting these rights – providing a framework for ‘embracing the good’ and removing the link between for example, honour or pride, and FGM. It is important however now to view human rights education simply as the transmission of western or international legal human right norms to ‘uneducated communities’, rather Mackie and LeJeune stresse it is instead a ‘fusion of horizons’ in which local values join with international human rights discourse.

Through describing the application of social convention theory to FGM, and integrating an awareness of the formation and upkeep of social norms, Mackie and LeJeune have provided what he refers to as a general model which can ‘provide insights for understanding the abandonment of FGM in most practicing communities.’

The  strength in the model lies in the fact that it integrates existing knowledge and understanding of common, and personal,  human behaviour, such as wanting the best for one’s daughter, with a broader understanding of the dynamics of community decision making. Mackie and LeJeune do not attempt to assert that the model can be applied in its entirety to the practice of FGM in all communities, but instead that it contains some important elements which are likely to be universal, and which if are analysed in relation to more specific local challenges may help provide a framework for ending the practice.

Where as Mackie and LeJeune based the start of their article on a universal idea – that parents want the best for their daughters – which allowed him to trace out the process of abandoning FGM in an easily  comprehensible way, I feel that my understanding of the importance of human rights education in changing norms still remains quite weak. This may not be the fault of Mackie and LeJeunes’ explanation, but rather the fact that I have grown up aware of such positive rights, and thus I am now not able to imagine the process of revelation that must happen when these are introduced for the first time; the possible effects on confidence and self-esteem, and on attitudes towards health and your body, for example.

How much variety exists in programmes implementing human rights education, for the purpose of eradicating FGM or otherwise, remains another mystery, and I’m now keen to try and understanding this link further: what effect does educating someone on something most people take for granted have? How does it work? What is the best way of doing this? Hopefully this summary has provided some good ground work for exploring this particular issue more in practice, and of exploring how the practice of FGM in different communities in Senegal links into the model that Mackie and LeJeune have provided.

All references taken from:

Gerry Mackie and John LeJeune (2009), ‘Social Dynamics of Abandonment of Harmful
Practices: A New Look at the Theory’. Special Series on Social Norms and Harmful Practices,
Innocenti Working Paper No. 2009-06, Florence, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre.
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