February 6, 2011
The ObserverTracy McVeigh
In Africa, if you play music in an open space, any music, then people will generally come. "It is the way to reach people, to bring them together." So says Sister Fa, a Senegalese urban soul and hip-hop star who has been lending her voice to a remarkable new drive against female circumcision in 12 of the countries worst affected by the practice across the continent.
The first report into a United Nations project that began in 2008 has shown remarkable success rates with more than 6,000 villages and communities in six countries already abandoning the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) – also known as cutting or female circumcision – with the numbers growing every month.
The change is down to a unique approach with a proper understanding of local culture, says Sister Fa, who has seen her own home town of Thionck Essyl, where she herself was "cut", abandon it altogether. Mutilation is practised in 28 African countries, where 140 million women have been subjected to the brutal practice and a further two million are at risk every year.
"We're using music because the young people are the future. They need to understand that they are not alone," Sister Fa told the Observer from Dakar, where she is on a tour called "Education Against Mutilation". Other cultural ambassadors are performing similar journeys.
"It is when you are alone, when you think: 'How can I not cut my child? She will be marginalised, pushed in a corner'," Sister Fa continued. "When the cutting ceremony is organised for the village and one girl is not there, everyone will know that she is not there, the whole village knows she is not cut. Then that girl is treated like an animal, you can't get married, you can't cook or pass water to someone for them to drink.
"So usually the NGOs come in from outside, foreigners maybe, and they try to do a demonstration and say: 'We don't want you to do this', and the people think: 'Why should we stop? This is our culture, our tradition, who are you to come here once and try to put pressure on us? This is our life, go away.' But if you reach communities and keep coming back and keep coming back, then we are finding you can change things."
It was her Austrian father-in-law who persuaded Sister Fa that it was time for her to speak out. "He said: 'It's time. It's time to break the taboo.' It wasn't easy for me. Even now, when I talk about these things in Senegal, if I am interviewed on the radio, then people will call in and not talk nicely, threats, tell me I must not talk against these things."
But African women talking to African communities about mutilation is exactly the way to change things, says Nafissatou Diop, co-ordinator for the UN project, a joint programme between the United Nations Population Fund and Unicef.
Diop said 12 years of mistakes by well-meaning NGOs had been closely examined and the lessons learned.
"We understand that what some charities were doing before was wrong," said Diop. "They were looking at the supply side and targeting those people who were doing the cutting, but taking them out of the system doesn't stop the demand, nor does outsiders going into a village and setting up a demonstration with an anatomical model of a woman's body that shocks everyone in the village, telling them their daughters will die and then you go away never to come back. It does not suffice.
"We are realising that you need to sustain what you are doing, open a dialogue, non-judgmentally, put things in local context and bring them to a voluntary abandonment of FGM. When this type of intervention is driven by and within a community, it is not seen as being a 'foreign influence'."
In Ethiopia, the prevalence rate has fallen from 80% to 74%, in Kenya from 32% to 27% and in Egypt from 97% to 91%. With the help of strong voices like that of African women like Sister Fa, the ambition is to wipe out mutilation within the next generation.
"We reach the young people," said Diop. "The women, but the men too. In their head we have to make them believe they can marry a girl who is not cut. Believe me, the FGM would stop tomorrow if the men wanted it to."
In Europe, too, lessons of the programme need to be learned, say activists. Sister Fa now lives in Berlin. "Cutting is still here, a lot of women are in prison, but cutting is still here, nothing is changing," she said. "There are a lot of laws to punish people, but it's prevention we need."