I found it hard to believe what I was seeing and experiencing. I kept sitting straighter, concentrating harder, unable to reconcile my thoughts with what was happening in front of me.
Sitting in the front row of a square, amongst over a thousand others, I had pride of place. Around me, women were dressed in bright colors, the sunlight fierce on their faces. I was in The Gambia to bear witness, to come the closest I have yet, to female genital cutting and the communities who have practiced it for decades, even centuries. The heat pervaded, the insistence of the drummers grew louder as performers leapt, sang, and enticed the crowd. Around me, young girls sat, fidgeting, nervous. I too felt nervous.
But not because I was about to witness a graphic act of cutting. Instead, this joyful ceremony was actually marking the end of the practice of genital cutting. People had gathered together to celebrate the fact that from that day forward, their daughters would not be cut, would still be married, and most importantly, that they themselves had chosen this path.
The energy of the occasion was incredible. Colors swirled as people danced to affirm their commitment; speeches were brief and poignant, talking about change; women spoke—some for the first time in their entire lives, in front of a gathered audience, their dignity and pride apparent.
For me, the most incredible sight was the former cutters dressed in long red shifts, swaying briskly into the center of the square to the rapid beat of a drum, carrying leafy branches. They danced, then stood in front of the crowd and explained that they now were aware of the implications of female genital cutting, that it brings health problems, that there are many difficulties. The woman who was the spokesperson held out a calabash, a hollowed out gourd traditionally used to hold the cutters' instruments. Now, ceremonially she put it down in front of them, on the ground. Bringing her foot down with a stamp, it shattered and she held her hands out to the crowd:
"We are no longer going to practice this. We are no longer going to practice this."
People responded. Around me were religious leaders, elected officials, youth groups, village elders, the police, a representative from the government's Women's Bureau. As villagers from the host community, Sare Ngai, performed a play about child marriage and FGC, everyone leaned forward in their chairs, entranced.
Communities themselves identify what no longer serves them. In this way, the changes made are sustainable and owned.
This was so different from the last year I had spent, trying to raise awareness about FGC and its scale and impacts. One year ago, almost to this day, I left the World Economic Forum in Davos, having exhorted attendees and the world's listeners to "End FGM Now"—my outrage was apparent and passionate. YouTube voters sent me to Davos in a competition that asked for a human rights abuse to be showcased. I set about trying to find out what was really happening at the grassroots and community level and was amazed at what I found—which is why, today, I am in Senegal to witness the remarkable impacts of over 5,000 communities declaring that they want change.
So how does this change happen? The theory is simple: what unites us all is a common purpose to uphold peace, unity, and safety. These moral norms are shared by people all around the world. In the communities where the African women's empowerment group Tostan works, the first question asked is, what do you aspire to? Invariably, the answer is peace. The next questions are around issues that might threaten that peace—not only externally, but also from within a community. Participants, both women and men, young and old, work with a community facilitator who explores human rights and what this means in reality.
This is the start of a three-year program that covers democracy, human rights, problem-solving, hygiene, health, literacy, numeracy, and management, to name but a few. Ending FGC was in fact an unintended consequence of the program, but now, over 5,000 communities in 6 African countries have abandoned it. Fundamental to the change is that women find their voice and have a safe space where they can explore their human rights and their responsibilities; equally important is that they learn how to put these sometimes intangible concepts into practice.
Once they learn about basic rights to health and freedom from harm, people themselves start to question their own behaviors. They speak with one another and discover the stronger links between, for example, female genital cutting and tetanus—if you don't know your daughter has died from tetanus, because you've never understood that there are invisible germs that lead to an infection that can take hold two weeks after an initial wound, would you necessarily relate the two?
Knowledge really is power. What is so powerful is that communities themselves identify what no longer serves them. In this way, the changes made are sustainable and owned.
Quite simply, the construction of a social norm (say, FGC) which has existed for centuries to uphold a moral norm (say, that every daughter must be married for her own protection) is seen to be no longer valid. It might once have been, but given what is known today, it is no longer acceptable. Once a community grasps this, it moves very quickly towards abandonment and declares its intention to no longer cut girls. The declaration is vital, not only because it is public and witnessed, but also because other intra-marrying communities are involved. Thus everyone knows that a girl will be uncut—both the prospective husbands and their families.
For me, this concept is so successful because it works with ultimate respect for the community involved and addresses the issue at the root. Sustainable change only happens when there is an understanding about what motivates communities in the first place. If we start from the basis that every parent wants what is best for their child, then we are in the right place. This was the first and most important lesson that I learned that shifted my understanding of FGC. It is this understanding and deep respect for communities, for their right to choose how to make decisions that will affect their lives, that is making a difference in thousands of local communities.
At this very moment, we have a chance to say that we are the last generation alive to bear witness to and experience female genital cutting. If this can be taken to scale and resourced and implemented across all the countries where it is practiced, we will no longer need an annual day to express our international concern. We will no longer need to use statistics to call the world's attention, statistics that somehow mask the reality of the pain of our girls and our women. I, for one, long for that day.
I later had a conversation with Saikou Jallow, a pharmacist and health worker from the village of Sare Ngai. He spoke with such thoughtfulness and dignity about his decision not to cut his daughter. I realized that what had been offered to him was true empowerment—the decision he made allowed him to reach for a higher good - one of peace and well-being for his child. Surely that is all we ever want? As I left him, I clasped his hand and said "jaarama"—thank you, in Fulani. "Yes,"he said, "thank you, thank you for coming to see. Make sure you tell people."
Julia Lalla-Maharajh was volunteering in Ethiopia when she came across the scale and impact of female genital cutting. She subsequently won a YouTube competition to appear at the World Economic Forum in Davos, to discuss the issue with world leaders. Following that experience, she set up the Orchid Project which aims to see a world free from female genital cutting by 2025.