Global Resources

Aligning with local cultures to end female genital mutilation/cutting

Publisher: United Nations Population Fund
Publication Date: Jan 2013
Decades of efforts to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) have demonstrated that direct assaults on practices laden with cultural significance are doomed to fail. This publication highlights lessons learnt, in order to formulate new strategies that take a more 'culturally sensitive' approach. It explains how the most successful approaches to FGM/C use facts and human rights principles to empower communities to decide for themselves to abandon the practice, thus instilling a sense of autonomy and avoiding the perception of being judged or coerced.

Researchers have found that the key to ending FGM/C is to stimulate a shift in the social norms of a community as a whole, and in networks of intra-marrying communities. This publication provides examples from Senegal, Kenya and Sudan, which illustrate how such a shift can occur in different ways. All of the approaches involve a process of dialogue, including everyone in the community, that avoids a blanket condemnation of FGM/C. Instead, the reasons behind the practice, along with its pros and cons, are dissected and debated in light of traditional values and universal principles of human rights. Working through traditional and religious leaders, through existing cultural practices, and through any available communication channel can facilitate the process of change.

Among the key lessons emphasised in this publication are the following:
  • Collective public declarations against FGM/C can signal the building of a critical mass, after which change tends to become rapid and universal.
  • Work through village elders and other community ‘gatekeepers’, who can ignite a process of change from within.
  • Explore the function that a traditional practice serves within a culture, and the way it is perceived and discussed, before trying to change it.
  • Build on the positive aspects of culture to promote new values and develop new practices.
  • In many conservative societies, the endorsement of religious leaders and other ‘custodians of culture’ may be needed before a shift in social norms can occur.