The Practice Of Female Genital Mutilation – Challenges For Health Communicators

Linked on our blogs with Give someone you never met, a gift they will never forget, and with Clinic to fight taboo of female mutilation – Published on DIALOGUES /the USA Africa Dialogue Series, Dec. 12, 2010.

Today’s human rights violations are the causes of tomorrow’s conflicts- Mary Robinson (former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights)

In Africa a businessman buys a child for a paltry sum, in Asia a baby is sexually abused, in an Oriental country, a toddler dies of neglect and starvation in an orphanage. A comon thread runs through all the scenarios painted above. All the victims are girls and by virtue of their gender, they were considered dispensable.

In many societies, a greater value is placed on boys and girls are not to be taken seriously because they will be married off and will not take care of aged parents or continue the family name. Indeed as an old Asian saying puts it: “raising a girl is like watering a plant in your neighbour’s garden”. 

Other statistics show the unhealty relationship that exists among the genders. Take for instance a United Nations report which indicates that of the 1.3 billion who live in dire poverty, 70% are women. Another report shows that 40% of young women in African and Southern and Western Asia are illiterate. In some countries, twice as many boys as girls are brought to health centres. Little wonder poverty increasingly has a woman’s face, leading to such terms as “the feminisation of poverty”. Former UNICEF ambassador Audrey Hepburn decried the “dreadful apartheid of gender going on in the developing world” … //

… It is not enough to feel pity for victims of FGM or to pass laws that challenge cherished customs. Here in lies the role of health communication. Direct communication that challenges existing attitudes tends to be less influential. Indeed as argued by dissonance theorists, when confronted by new or conflicting information, we experience some kind of mental discomfort, a dissonance. Resultantly, we try to reduce that discomfort through three interrelated selective processes. These processes help us sieve what information we consume, remember and interpret in personally important ways.

On the other hand persuasive communication works better because people can reach a conclusion on their own. Here lies a great challenge for health communicators who must take the time to reason with people on the dangers inherent in the practice. Since FGM is cherished and even celebrated in some parts of Nigeria, any change in behaviour must start with a change of values; a gradual re-orienting of the mind set. For instance a common reason advanced for the practice is that it prevents promiscuity. An alternative value which could be discussed with perpetrators is the importance of sound moral upbringing. A simple logic like this could be advanced: “would you cut off your child’s hands just because you do not want her to steal? Not likely. Would you not rather teach her to avoid stealing?” This perhaps could make people reach a logical conclusion without being coerced.

Alternative rites of passages that have the same symbolic significance like FGM should be introduced.

More media messages should be directed towards the elimination of FGM. Has anyone heard any mention of it lately? Not likely. This therefore is a wake-up call to media experts particularly health communicators. All forms of the mass media should be employed to re-orient the mind set of all concerned especially those who advance it.

Further inter-personal communication and small group communication should be employed since some may not be keen users of conventional media. The topic should be discussed with family and friends in order to mobilize more forces to stop the practice.

Support should also be given to organisations that are committed to the fight. That way those affected as well as those at risk will be helped. It will help also in the re-orienting of those responsible for the practice.

Alternative sources of income should also be given to FGM practioners since the practice constitutes a major source of income in some areas.

An FGM committee could be set up to include circumcisers, religious leaders, community heads, health workers and victims. These will be educating on ways to spearhead the campaign against FGM and will naturally have a good following since they are considered opinion leaders.

In these ways, human rights defenders will take the campaign a step further and hopefully see results for their selfless service to humanity.

Nora Ubek, Lagos, Nigeria. (full text).

Newsletter: USA-Africa Dialogue Series, moderated by Toyin Falola, University of Texas at Austin. For current archives, visit this webpage.

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