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Involving men and boys in the fight to end FGM/C: what does the evidence say?

Expert comment

Written by Anneke Newman

Hero image description: The backs of 3 young African men with their arms over each others shoulders Image license:© Kwame Amo/ Shutterstock ID: 2003295461

[En français]

Recently, there has been significant debate about the importance of involving men and boys in strategies to end female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). But what does the evidence show about the involvement of men and boys in the practice of FGM/C, and the effectiveness of interventions that engage them? Should men and boys be implicated as a priority, and if so, how? This post presents some answers.

Depending on who you ask, different reasons are given for involving men and boys in FGM/C eradication efforts. They boil down to three arguments that men need to be involved because 1) they dominate decisions surrounding the practice; 2) they are likely to oppose the practice; or 3) FGM/C is a patriarchal practice used by men to limit women’s sexuality for their own sexual pleasure and social control.

However, these arguments reflect a number of myths about the relationships between men, gender relations and FGM/C, and a poor understanding of the processes of social norm and behaviour change. Let’s unpack these myths one by one.

Myth 1: Men dominate decisions around FGM/C

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that in societies where FGM/C is practiced, it is older women or grandmothers who wield the most authority as:

1) Executors of the practice who perform the cutting and associated rituals

2) Decision-makers in their families, who decide whether, when, and how to cut or not cut girls

3) Influencers of the social norms shaping the practice in their wider community.

The influence of men over the practice is far more variable and context-dependent. As fathers, men can play a role as decision-makers in their families. However, evidence from contexts as diverse as Ethiopia, Somalia, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, the Gambia, Mali and Sierra Leone show that the authority of the girl’s grandmother (the father’s mother) is often as important, or even more so, in shaping the final decision. In many of these contexts, men aren’t involved in the decision at all, and don’t know when or if the cutting is going to happen. FGM/C is considered ‘women’s business’ and men often don’t have the right to challenge older women on it. That said, men do have considerable influence over social norms underpinning FGM/C, for instance in their choice of who (not) to marry, in preaching what their religion says about the practice, or by financing relevant rituals.

What we can say for certain is that the statement in a recent article on men and boys in Le Monde newspaper which claims that men have principal decision-making authority FGM/C in Senegal is contradicted by all the available scientific evidence on this context.

Myth 2: Men’s attitudes oppose FGM/C

The second argument in support of involving men and boys in FGM/C eradication efforts – which is also mentioned in the article in Le Monde – is that they often show less support for the practice than women in their communities, and should therefore be engaged as a priority, as role models or ‘positive deviants’.

First, people’s attitudes in support of, or in opposition to, FGM/C varies widely by context. The assumption that men show less support for FGM/C than women is often associated with another assumption, that youth show less support than elders. However, evidence shows that, instead of being presumed from the outset, people’s attitudes need to be measured empirically on a case by case basis. Recent research from Mali shows that youth’s and elders’ support for FGM/C was similar, at around 70%, although grandmothers were slightly less likely to support the practice than younger generations.

Even if men do oppose the practice, this isn’t the most important factor that should inform intervention design – despite the fact that most anti-FGM/C interventions focus their attention on people whose attitudes oppose FGM/C. Unfortunately, this approach goes against fifty years of insight from systems theory which shows that social norms change interventions can only bring about sustained change if the people who wield authority over those social norms collectively come to a consensus in favour of change. In the case of FGM/C, that means that grandmothers must lead the change process, even if they often - though not necessarily - strongly support the practice at the outset.

Myth 3: FGM/C is a ‘patriarchal’ practice

This myth is tricky – and is influenced by your definition of ‘patriarchy’. For the most part, the fields of global health and gender and development are informed by a definition of patriarchy from Western feminist theory which assumes that the gender binary is automatically a gender hierarchy. So, the logic goes, where you have distinctions between ‘men’ and ‘women’, men are automatically positioned as superior to women – and this is universal across human societies.

However, African gender theorists and feminists including Ifi Amadiume, Oyèrónké Oyěwùmí, Nwando Achebe, Sylvia Tamale and Obioma Nnaemeka have challenged this idea. They argue that African societies were traditionally based on ‘dual sex institutions’ where men and women were framed as separate but complementary, and each gender was associated with different spheres of activity and authority. A significant axis of hierarchy was seniority – based on biological age, and position in family networks. It was European colonization and Christianity which eroded the basis of women’s power, and lead to the more entrenched gender inequalities we see today.

In societies with dual sex institutions, FGM/C was part of the process where girls became women, and it conferred social, political and spiritual power in the feminine sphere. This is why so many women across Africa continue to support the practice – they know there are risks and pain associated with it, but it is an important aspect of their feminine and ethnic identity. It confers many social benefits, and grants women influence and authority relative to men – an influence which continues to be eroded by the neoliberal global economy.

In 2012, a group of 15 anthropologists, health scientists and practitioners wrote a public statement arguing that abolishing FGM/C without providing women with an alternative that confers as many social advantages weakens women’s social position relative to men’s. They criticized the side-lining of women in such interventions in favour of male leaders, arguing that it increases patriarchal control over women’s bodies. Ultimately, they argue, women must lead the change process on their own terms.

Recommendations for involving men and boys in FGM/C interventions

A recent project undertaken by ODI and UNICEF Mali, and funded by the EU Spotlight Initiative to End Violence Against Women and Girls, conducted a large review of the evidence on what works in FGM/C eradication efforts. They concluded that, despite the significant influence of grandmothers over social norms in relation to sexual and reproductive health, interventions side-line them in favour of adolescent girls, men and boys, and male religious leaders. This often results in low success of interventions, elder-led community backlash, and increased vulnerability of both older women and young girls.

Instead, ODI argue that social norm change interventions aimed at eliminating FGM/C are much more likely to succeed if they use a ‘grandmother-inclusive’ strategy which engages grandmothers as a priority, as well as other key authorities and stakeholders (men, women of reproductive age, community and religious leaders, midwives, etc). Strategies which focus on one group in isolation, such as girls/youth empowerment activities, are not effective in shifting social norms and behaviour.

To conclude, it is essential to involve men and boys in FGM/C eradication strategies because all categories of actors who wield authority over social norms, and who are affected by the practice, must be involved. For instance, men’s observations of the sexual and medical difficulties experienced by their cut wives can provide a powerful argument against the practice which resonates at local level, and work must be done to break the taboos on discussing these issues within families and communities. But ultimately, grandmothers must be engaged as priority, and inter-generational coalitions of female elders, women and girls must lead the change process with men positioned as allies.