An empowered approach to end female genital cutting.
Can people change their ways? Yes. But don’t bother preaching against a culture’s conventions, or outlawing them. Neither will work, says Gerry Mackie, associate professor of political science in the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences. When it comes to stopping a practice like female genital cutting (FGC), a community must be empowered to change itself.
FGC ranges from symbolic pricking to infibulation—full excision of the clitoris and labia and being sewn shut. Concentrated in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East, the traumatic and dangerous practice is estimated to have affected 130 million girls and women, with more than 3 million girls under the age of 15 currently at risk.
Many efforts to end FGC can backfire. Informing people that cutting is unsafe can result in medicalization—replacing traditional cutters with doctors and nurses. And criminalizing FGC can drive it underground, making it even more dangerous and entrenching traditionalists in their positions.
The traumatic and dangerous practice is estimated to have affected 130 million girls and women.
Mackie’s approach starts with understanding how communities that have practiced FGC for centuries are not intending to hurt or disfigure, but rather to ensure marriageability in their society.
“They do it because they love their daughters,” Mackie explains. “And they will stop because they love them.”
Over the two decades Mackie has studied female genital cutting, he’s seen striking similarities with the abandoned practice of foot-binding in China. The pivotal innovation in that case: public pledges by intermarrying groups.
In 1998 Mackie began collaborating with the nonprofit Tostan to put this theory into practice, encouraging more than 7,000 communities across eight African countries to publicly declare abandonment of FGC.
The pledges are a high point, Mackie cautions. Harmful practices end as “enough people see that enough people are changing.”
Mackie and UC San Diego graduate assistants are currently writing a theory of change for ending FGC, outlining the desired outcome and measures of success. While the details will depend on what’s discovered over the next years, Mackie’s premise will certainly remain: “Treat people as rational, good people, who want what’s best for their girls.”