This 6th February marks a decade since the then First Lady of Nigeria, Mrs Stella Obasanjo officially declared the date as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C).
Five years later in 2008, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) came together to begin work on the Joint Programme for the Acceleration of the Abandonment of FGM/C.
The Joint Programme has set the benchmark for socio-cultural change on an issue which raises complex questions about gender equity, cultural difference and the universality of human rights (in other words, it’s not an issue you want to casually bring up in conversation). And it has shown impressive results: in 2011, 2,000 communities across Africa have abandoned the practice. That’s a total of 8,000 communities (or 2,600 communities per year) across 15 African countries that have renounced FGM/C since the Programme began.
What did it take to bring about such change? At the core of the programme lies the thought that long lasting social change must be culturally-sensitive, collective and be led by communities.
The three-C strategy is deceptively simple yet, like many things that go unnoticed, it requires everyday hard work. Not that this everyday work is ordinary, but it does take ongoing will and commitment to deliver more than 18,000 community education sessions, to engage almost 3,000 religious leaders and to attract more than 3,000 media features.
While the work in Australia is on a more modest scale, it’s important to recognise that FGM/C education programs have been conducted with affected communities from as far back as 1996. These programs are based on internationally proven strategies, and continue to have great results.
The Australian government’s recent announcement to fund and support communities to eradicate FGM/C is certainly welcome news. It follows and supports an historic resolution made by the UN General Assembly’s human rights committee, calling for aglobal ban on FGM/C. It’s also an opportunity to add another strategy: to consolidate our efforts across the country to ensure that our approach is indeed collective, coordinated and sustained.
If the government continues to match the commitment and hard work already being shown by health practitioners and community and settlement workers across Australia to eliminate FGM/C, change within this generation is entirely possible.