Today the New York Times editorial board endorses the Girls Protection Act which would criminalize anyone taking a girl out of the country to have the female genital cutting (“FGC”) procedure. There is nothing really wrong with the Act, or with some of the other measures the Times endorses, such as education campaigns in those immigrant communities where the procedure is still endorsed, hot lines for pediaticians, and safe harbors at international air terminals.
But that really misses the point.
Three weeks ago, I was lucky enough to participate in a delegation of rabbinical students to Senegal, sponsored by the American Jewish World Service. We went there to see the work of Tostan, a pathbreaking community development NGO that has done far more to eliminate FGC than any of the paths that the Times talks about or that Congress has addressed. Why? Because Tostan operates bottom-up, not top down.
AJWS was one of the first big backers of Tostan, because it saw that the Tostan method was effective. Molly Melching, Tostan’s founder and executive director, spoke to us about her organization’s approach. Instead of telling rural communities what they should do, Tostan asks them what they want, empowers them through education on the issues that they care about, and as this process takes hold, the communities often come around to rejecting FGC. Tostan’s motto is “community-led development,” and my experience was that they live that model. (Incidentally, that’s why Tostan insists on calling it “cutting” instead of “mutilation”. People generally react badly when you tell them that they are mutilating their children; it’s about efficacy, not political correctness).
So instead of marching into a village and telling people to end the practice — which they won’t, because they want their daughters to be able to get married, and traditionally without FGC they will not be seen as eligible — Tostan listened to villagers, heard that they were interested in improving health care, and worked with them in developing their own capacity. Only then did villagers begin to talk about a variety of health problems that unsurprisingly were connected to FGC.
The results are impressive: when Tostan started their work, estimates were that 5,000 villages in Senegal practiced FGC; today, 4,300 of them have publicly declared that they are abanding the practice. That’s particularly important, because it means that the thousands of parents who didn’t like the practice but went along with it because they thought there was no choice now know that there is one).
I’m particularly proud of AJWS’ role in this. Instead of developing its own vision of development and implementing it itself, it looks for local partners known for their integrity and efficacy and supports them. Just as important, it is flexible with its grantees. Melching explained to us that AJWS had originally funded Tostan to do early children education work, but that Tostant found that the villagers really wanted to do health care work. No problem, said AJWS: respond to the needs on the ground.
Don’t believe the story? Take a look at Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s recent book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. There’s a whole chapter on Tostan, with a considerable amount devoted to its partnership with AJWS.
Oh yes — and while you’re doing that, make sure to give a big contribution to AJWS here. Reward good behavior. It’s really worth it.