Ending female genital mutilation: Red Cross and Red Crescent experience

Published: 6 February 2008

This is a particularly valuable dialogue, especially on this day - the International Day of zero tolerance of female genital mutilation.

The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement has a mission to alleviate and prevent human suffering in conformity with its fundamental principles. As such, the fundamental principle of impartiality requires us to provide humanitarian aid and deliver services in a non-discriminatory manner, focusing on the basis of need and vulnerability.

Non-discrimination is one of the cornerstones of the RC/RC humanitarian ethics. This means that we make no adverse distinction based on an individual’s sex, age, disability, social origin, or race, nationality, religious beliefs or political opinion, as only one common criterion should guide us: humanity.

The promotion of respect for diversity and human dignity and reduction of intolerance and discrimination, is one of the four objectives to be pursued by all 186 RC/RC National Societies, according to the IFRC Global Agenda for 2006-2010.

This includes, indisputably, all forms of sexual and gender based violence, including female genital mutilation.

Commitments to address sexual and gender based violence, including female genital mutilation, have furthermore been endorsed explicitly in the 2004 Pan-African Conference bringing together 53 Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies of the region.

Its official outcome document, the Algiers Plan of Action, highlighted the priority need to tackle female genital mutilation through health programmes and raise awareness on the harmful effects of the practice with youth.

Combating sexual and gender based violence, including female genital mutilation remains a strong focus on our African National Societies’ agenda. West and Central African National Societies for instance, will increase awareness and advocacy campaigns against the practice of female genital mutilation through the mobilisation of international media during 2008 and 2009.

It is the experience of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, through its network of millions of volunteers, that in order to achieve sustainable success with female genital mutilation, it is crucial to invite all actors involved in the practice of female genital mutilation.

Let me share some our strategies that have borne fruit, particularly when carried out in a holistic and community-based manner.

Skills-based training for girls: A case in point is Ghana, where the majority of rural women are faced with socio-cultural practices, including female genital mutilation.

The IFRC and the Ghana Red Cross are working together to raise awareness and understanding on the negative effect of female genital mutilation. Furthermore, they have pro-actively engaged in activities increasing the self-confidence of women, such as the acquisition of negotiation skills.

Skills-based training has in fact shown to be key in counterbalancing the traditional upbringing of rural girls which teaches them to be passive and submissive and hampers them to take control of their own lives.

In the same spirit, the Sierra Leone Red Cross National Society has trained females in leadership skills.

Another successful strategy has been to approach female genital mutilation through health and care programmes fully integrating gender concerns.

Recently, this explicit linkage of FGM to health, and specifically the prevention of HIV/AIDS has proved to be a large success. Addressing female genital mutilation on the back of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS, has enabled us to reach even the most traditional of communities where attempts to discuss female sexuality would otherwise be rebuffed.

An excellent example here is the 2006 campaign to prevent HIV/AIDS and female genital mutilation, launched by the Red Cross Societies of Chad, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, with the help of the Swedish Red Cross and Canadian CIDA.

In Chad, 460 young and female volunteers were trained in peer education skills, and 120 youth were mobilised to educate the community on the detrimental effects of this practice, reaching over 6000 people who gained awareness every month. Innovative, informal educational activities, such as theatrical productions and the organisation of information and awareness-raising days, proved to be extremely efficient in highly illiterate communities.

220 traditional community chiefs, religious authorities, administrative representatives and opinion leaders were actively involved and trained to plea against female genital mutilation, on the basis of Chadian Law No. 66/PR/2002, on the Promotion of Reproductive Health.

Adopted in 2002, the Law guarantees enjoyment of several reproductive rights; including independent decision-making regarding reproductive health, and freedom from harmful practices, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, particularly in regards to an individual’s reproductive organs.

The Law specifies that harmful traditional practices, including female genital mutilation are prohibited.

Another important strategy resides in ensuring alternative viability for practitioners of female genital mutilation. Raising awareness among practitioners on the detrimental health effects of the practice of female genital mutilation was another key objective in ensuring success in Chad, CAR and Cameroon.

In the 3 countries, 439 practitioners were identified by the Red Cross/Red Crescent volunteers. Together they facilitated the creation of 8 mutual aid associations of former practitioners, allowing women to receive reproductive health training skills, as well as access to micro-credit loans in order to finance alternative livelihoods.

The creation of these associations significantly contributed to supporting the long-term viability and success of the initiative. However, it has not always been easy to mobilise sufficient financial resources, which unfortunately are sometimes a key factor in convincing practitioners to abandon the practice.

Enhancing diversity in our volunteer basis.

The involvement of female staff and volunteers in combating the practice of female genital mutilation has proven to be an extremely important element in the RC/RC work, even more so when we are working in societies where interaction between men and women is a culturally sensitive issue.

More generally, even beyond the scope of sexual and gender based violence and female genital mutilation, diversifying our volunteer basis (involved in service delivery, along gender, ethnic and youth lines) has proven to be a crucial enabling strategy to directly reach all beneficiaries at the grass-roots level.

We have demonstrated significant progress in this regard world-wide. As a follow up to the concrete commitments in the 3rd Annual Conference of Middle East and North Africa RC/RC Societies, held in Tehran from the 27-30 May, 2001, female volunteers today constitute 40 to 60% of National Societies’ active volunteers.

Finally, please allow me to thank the organisers on behalf of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for inviting us to be present in today’s panel discussion.

We congratulate you for the initiative you have taken in bringing together high-level stakeholders all working to end the harmful practice of female genital mutilation.

Opportunities as these where we can share experiences and lessons learned are crucial in helping all of us to improve our action and work together for humanity in synergy.