Addressing FGM, Stigma and Taboos in Community Media

As a community radio station it is important to have taken the time to consider how to deal with stigma and taboos. The radio station may already, in its mission and value statement, address these areas, but they should also be dealt with in the internal regulations[1] or a volunteer handbook, used for introduction of the volunteer community broadcasters.

A taboo is the prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behaviour is either too sacred and consecrated or too dangerous and accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake.[1]

A social stigma is a severe social disapproval of or personal discontent with a person on the grounds of their unique characteristics distinguishing them from others in society.[2] Almost all stigma is based on a person differing from social or cultural norms including due to mental illness; a physical form of deformity or an undesired differentness; or an association with a particular race, religion, belief, etc.[3]

A community radio station is a special media and community forum that is particularly well suited as a place where culturally linked stigmata and taboos can be challenged. This must be done carefully, respectfully, and with all the cultural sensitivity that a community radio can have. This may be complicated for many volunteer community radio programmers, who are a part of the community and may, automatically, adhere to general norms, ideas and reactions to areas of stigma and taboo. They do, however, have an obligation to take responsibility to work for the development of all, not least these particularly vulnerable groups in the community. Special awareness-raising sessions may be necessary and useful for producers to challenge un-reflected continuation of traditional notions.

There are many areas affected by stigmata and taboos, which vary in relevance and significance in different contexts. These should be mapped specifically for the community in question during the various community-mapping sessions.  However, a number of areas are likely to be relevant in many contexts, including among others, HIV/AIDS, female genital mutilation, and people living with disability. With respect to these three areas, some experiences and suggestions on approach and opportunities in a community radio are shared below.

Dialogue and debate needed - also around Female Genital Mutilation

UNICEF estimates[1] a death rate of ten to twenty per cent for female children undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). This alone is a powerful reason to stop the practice which predates any of the religions often used as a justification. Many additional devastating effects of the practice are well documented including a variety of resulting physical, psychological and social traumas for the affected women as they grow up. Apart from this, the practice is recognised as a breach of the human rights of a woman.

Many accounts highlight that the tradition is continued because it is seen to bring a girl into womanhood, and that the procedure purifies the woman. A woman who is intact and who has not been through the mutilating procedure could for instance not be married in the cultures practicing the many different forms of mutilation. Practices range from the minor removal of the hood of the clitoris to the most drastic so-called ‘pharaonic circumcision’ or infibulation, where the clitoris is usually removed together with the minor labia as well as major labia. This leaves the remaining parts to grow together, leaving only a small passage for urine and menstrual blood.

When the broader, public discussion of this area was opened at the occasion of the UN Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1980, a prohibition was the agenda, with vocal groups advocating for countries to legally end the practice. While a number of countries actually did decide to make this practice illegal, this did not end the deep-rooted cultural practice. Rather it pushed it even more into secrecy and further away from the means to disinfect tools and provide anaesthetic support. The legal solution proved to not be the tool to end this practice that, amongst other things, perpetuates the subordinate and inferior status of women, as people who do not deserve their human rights. It was realised that also in this area of life, it is really only the communities and affected individuals themselves, who can effect change. Community radio is one of the effective communication channels for information and discussion on these highly taboo practices on the local community’s own terms.

UNICEF and UNFPA are two of the major international organisations that have worked to inspire community dialogue and exchange as a means of ending the practice. One of their partners is Tostan Senegal, which is responsible for facilitating change in the impressive 4000 villages in Senegal, who have since 1997 decided to abandon FGM and leave the ancient tradition.

KEUR SIMBARA, Senegal, one of many villages where FGM is history

‘It is has been 13 years since the people of this little village, 76 km from Dakar, stopped female genital mutilation (FGM) and they are not only proud of their decision, but they are championing the cause of renouncing the practice across Senegal. “You see those children over there – none of them has been cut,” said Dossou Konate, a mother of six, proudly pointing at a group of girls sitting on a mat, near a stack of hay in her courtyard. 

The tradition was so strong that when women from other villages where FGM was not practised married men in this village they were considered impure until they were circumcised, Konate said. But that changed after the villagers participated in a community empowerment programme that involved adult literacy as well as training in human, political and health rights. The health module taught them to identify the health risks, including bleeding, HIV, tetanus and difficulty in childbirth, which their girls were facing with the continued practise of FGM.

“We realised that we had to review this tradition,” Konate said.

Presently, Demba Diawara, the chief of Keur Simbara, leads a team of four campaigners who have succeeded in convincing the people of 347 villages in Senegal to abandon the ancient tradition. “Honestly, it is not an easy task for a village chief – a custodian of our traditions - to be at the forefront of explaining why people have to abandon a rite which we inherited from our ancestors,” Diawara told. “But what do we have heads for if we can’t use our brains to think? If we can think about the usefulness of something and think about how we can move on, all else becomes easy,” he said. 

The villagers of Keur Simbara did use their heads. They analysed the practice and concluded that it did not have to be maintained--but that was after several months of discussion and debate that involved the wider community from neighbouring villages which also held the same traditions. In the end, they jointly decided to abandon FGM. Diawara and his team, which includes his son, Konate and another woman who used to perform the cutting, have used the same principle in other villages, although usually it is not without challenges. “Sometimes we are insulted and chased out of villages, but we still go back three or four times if necessary. We tell them that if we have come to talk to them about excision (FGM) it is not because we lack respect for their traditions or we are disrespectful of their person. Then people start listening and we proceed,” said Konate.

Senegal passed a law forbidding FGM in 1999 but the practice continues in parts of the country and will only stop when communities themselves choose to do so, based on their understanding of the merits of such a decision, groups advocating for a rights-based approach have said. “It is their decision and their decision alone without anybody patronising them,” said Rose Diop, the community mobilisation officer for Tostan Senegal, the organisation that has been promoting the community-based approach that proved successful in Keur Simbara.

More than 4,000 villages in Senegal have abandoned FGM since 1997 with the support of Tostan, which has also recorded success in neighbouring Mauritania and the Gambia. Their approach also encourages abandonment to be done in clusters – whereby groups of villages and not just individuals decide to end the practice. For example, it would have been difficult for women from Keur Simbara to marry in their wider ethnic communities if the others were still practising FGM, Diop said. “We tell villages that still practise excision (FGM) that we were doing the same thing (but) we thought deeply about its consequences and stopped. Now we would like them to think about those consequences for their daughters too,” said Konate.’

When Community Media can change deep-rooted tradition

FGM has travelled far from earlier secrecy around these traditional rites;from vocal attempts to curb it, via laws and punishment, to the successful implementation of community conversations and dialogue at community level, as well as between neighbouring communities and villages. While the above Senegalese case and example was facilitated carried primarily via and by community radio, the approach is the same as that of ‘community radio for development and empowerment’. It is an example of where change via the provision of appropriate and relevant information in the relevant language and in a respectful and culturally sensitive manner was used to challenge old ways and provide a forum for discussion of ways to identify new solutions.

FGM also used to be practiced in the Maasai community around the ORS FM community radio referred to above in the section on women’s human rights. Here the radio took an active part in discussing ways of abolishing the unhealthy and demeaning practice.[1] Old and respected community members met in the tiny radio studio to discuss ways of creating change, and confronting those who found such change undesirable. In the end it was agreed that if the practice was not meant to harm and hurt the women, but needed to symbolise a purification and transition into woman-hood, a different type of tradition and manifestation could be found. With the involvement of the traditional healers a special mix of local, purifying herbs was agreed upon, which the young women would use to purify their genital area, leading into the same kind of traditional festivity that used to mark the successful completion of the FGM ceremonies.

ORS FM was instrumental in this important transformation of a harmful traditional practice into a modernised, respectful practice, maintaining the important transition from being a girl to becoming a woman. Involvement by the elders, the traditional leaders and the healers was in this case very effective. The use of the radio meant[2] that all of the community followed the lengthy process to find solutions, and in the end supported the new transition ritual developed.