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Guest Contributor: Communication for the Abandonment Of Female Genital Cutting

Neil Ford, UNICEF's regional adviser for programme communication in Eastern and Southern Africa, advocates using communication for social change based on human rights principles to help stop female genital cutting, a practice that violates the right of young women to sexual and reproductive health.

UNICEF, with the rest of the development community, has long considered female genital cutting a violation of the right of young women to sexual and reproductive health. It has tried several approaches to end the practice, including:
  • Alternate rights of passage;
  • Alternate livelihood strategies for circumcisers;
  • Laws prohibiting female genital cutting; and
  • Health messages and public awareness campaigns.
These approaches share a common feature: They did not use communication for social change strategies.

Instead, experts from outside the affected communities have initiated the interventions, often with little input or support from community members themselves. In addition, they have not been directed at the primary reason that female genital cutting occurs: to ensure the marriageability of girls. While they have produced awareness in target audiences that female genital cutting has negative health consequences and that other societies do not cut the genitals of young women, they have neither converted this awareness into changed practice nor produced large-scale abandonment of female genital cutting (Mackie, 2000). Consequently, the prevalence of female genital cutting has remained more or less constant in the 28 countries where it is practiced. Currently, about 150 million women have undergone female genital cutting, and up to two million girls are cut every year.

If large-scale change is to occur, a new way to communicate with the people who practice female genital cutting is necessary. This introduction proposes an approach to communication based on community dialogue and the development of shared understanding, rather than the dominant model of health communication, the design of messages that direct people to preferred behaviors.

In the dialogue approach, the role of the communication professional is to a) find ways to include all community groups in the discussion, especially the women and girls who are directly affected by female genital cutting, b) facilitate discussion within and between the groups in a community so that all perspectives are heard and considered and c) introduce new information into the discussion so that action can be informed by knowledge as well as cultural preference.

Respect for culture, however, is an important aspect of the communication strategy. Discussion based on an appreciation of local language and respect for a community's traditions creates trust between insiders and outsiders, making it easier for outsiders to introduce new ideas into the conversation and to build energy for changes in practice.

Instead of condemning female genital cutting as a "harmful traditional practice", the dialogue approach to communication starts with an understanding that female genital cutting occurs because parents love their daughters and want the best possible future for them. It does not direct community members to a preferred behavior through health-education messages. Rather, it uses a non-directive approach that encourages the entire community to discuss health and development issues and reach consensus on the human rights and responsibilities of all members, but especially girls and women, mothers and daughters.

Three human rights principles are particularly relevant to communication for female genital cutting abandonment: self-determination, the right of people to choose for themselves what to do and not have a decision imposed upon them; participation, the right to be actively involved in the decision-making process; and inclusion, the right of all groups in a community, even those who are marginalized, to be part of the change process.

From a human rights perspective, the purpose of communication is to create shared understanding between ordinary people and people in authority to build consensus on development objectives and shared commitment in achieving them. Development then occurs because people collectively agree on the actions that should occur, through a social learning process of assessment, analysis and action that has involved them as key actors (Jonsson, 2003).

Many communication programs on female genital cutting abandonment, however, are designed and delivered with low levels of support and involvement from ordinary people. Instead, outsiders design communication campaigns to build high-level, international support for abandonment of female genital cutting.

As a result, the campaigns often create a gap between knowledge and practice.

Effective communication for female genital cutting abandonment must therefore go further than explaining why the practice is harmful and then persuading individuals to stop it. It must help them discover how they can stop, by facilitating a non-directive communication process to help them take collective action.

Change is then produced from a mixture of insider and outsider knowledge that is agreed upon by all. This non-directive communication approach builds community ownership, a necessary pre-condition for sustained change. If outsiders direct the conversation toward abandonment of female genital cutting, rather than facilitate a process in which people come to this conclusion themselves, they do not build the collective will to change.

An interactive communication process should ensure the participation of groups that do not usually have a voice, such as young girls. It should also give a voice to influential individuals such as religious leaders, since they are guardians of the community's culture. Further, it should employ adult learning techniques to integrate information from technical specialists about sexual and reproductive health into community discussion, improving the knowledge of ordinary people. Improved participation and adult learning techniques enrich the quality of dialogue, ensuring that changes benefit everyone. They help the process of change reach beyond individuals, ensuring the sustainability of collectively agreed actions, and helping to prevent stigma against individuals who first abandon the practice.

Communication with a human rights perspective is closely aligned to communication for social change practice and principles. It is based on the belief that people should control and manage the communication process themselves. And it values justice, equity, respect for individual beliefs and the value of community action.

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