Engaging communities to end female genital mutilation

FGM is rooted in harmful gender and social norms that are deeply entrenched and often identified with cultural traditions. Even where individuals are personally opposed to the practice, social pressures from family, neighbours and other community members can make it difficult to take a stand against it. In communities where the practice is widespread, girls who do not undergo FGM may be stigmatized, as may their families.

That is why ending FGM entails engaging entire communities. When a community collectively decides to abandon the practice, no individual girl or family is disadvantaged by the decision.

The road to collective abandonment starts with community dialogues, providing the opportunity for community members to learn about the harm FGM causes to girls, and about the human rights dimensions of the practice. Such dialogues engage a range of stakeholders, including traditional and religious leaders, grassroots activists, law enforcement, health workers, social workers, teachers, and young people.

As a traditional birth attendant with long experience working in her community, Aisha has the sort of knowledge and influence that enable her to play a key role in this process.

During bi-weekly community conversations and at social gatherings, she teaches about the harmful consequences of FGM and child marriage, two harmful practices that are often intertwined. She also goes from house to house to address any misconceptions that community members may have.

These activities are supported by the Integrated Programme on Prevention of Child Marriage and FGM, implemented in the Afambo and Abala Districts of the Afar Region since 2012 with support from the Swedish UN Association, under the UN Adolescent Girls Task Force Project, overseen by the region’s Women and Children Affairs Bureau. The programme is the first of its kind, aiming to advance the abandonment of the two harmful practices in an integrated manner. In order to reach more adolescent girls, interventions are coordinated with the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, which is also implemented in Ethiopia, as is the two agencies’ joint Global Programme to End Child Marriage.

In addition to supporting community-level mobilization, the Integrated Programme aims to create platforms and safe spaces for girls at risk; enhance access to sexual and reproductive health services, including to address complications facing girls who have experienced FGM and child marriage; and strengthen partners’ institutional capacity to protect adolescent girls and reach them with the services they need, including by raising awareness with health personnel.

In addition, the programme aims to empower adolescent girls by promoting the importance of girls’ education and financial literacy. It delivers interventions through schools, to create positive, safe environments for girls and mobilize entire school commmunities to support the movement to end FGM and child marriage. Monthly stipends and supplies, such as educational materials and dignity kits, are offered to enable disadvantaged girls to attend school regularly and avoid dropping out.

FGM doesn’t serve any purpose other than harming the body of a girl and jeopardizing her life.
— Aisha Dima Abdella
© UNFPA/Luca Zordan


of women and girls aged 15-49 in Ethiopia have experienced female genital mutilation, as of 2016

5 in 10

adolescent girls aged 15-19 today have experienced female genital mutilation, compared to nearly 9 in 10 around 1970

Building change that endures

© UNFPA/Luca Zordan

As a result of the programme’s activities, including the community conversations, more than 30,000 people in intervention localities have publicly declared the abandonment of both FGM and child marriage in the presence of key stakeholders including adolescent girls, religious leaders, clan leaders and elders.

The programme is also making an impact on school dropout, according to school officials and local authorities in the Abala district. Girls’ clubs are holding discussions during which both married and unmarried girls can openly discuss their concerns and report the risks they face, as well as receiving support to stay in or return to school and learning to open savings accounts.

“I am very happy to be part of the social change movement created by the programme,” says Aisha.

She recognizes that there is more work to do, and is prepared to do it. “If I see the commission of FGM and child marriage,” she says, “I will do whatever it takes to report the matter to the authorities.” It is especially critical to maintain the momentum created by the programme, in order to prevent these harmful practices being continued in secret, she warns.

But because the change came from within the community, Aisha is ultimately confident that the progress made to date on ending child marriage and FGM is sustainable.

I have no fear that the changes we are seeing and the gains made will be reversed, as the community has owned the changes.
— Aisha Dima Abdella


Supporting survivors’ mental health

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