14 May 2013

Is education the most powerful weapon in the fight against FGM?

Blog by Louise Robertson.

Nelson Mandela said that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.  I was reminded of this quote by the striking fact that only 19% of Kenya girls who have secondary level education undergo female genital mutilation (FGM) compared to an alarming 54% of girls who do not get a school education. This is one of the key findings from 28 Too Many’s report “Country Profile: FGM in Kenya” which was published on 8th May 2013. Coming from a family with four generations of teachers, I was intrigued about what exactly drives the reduction of FGM in educated girls and wondered if education holds the key to the global eradication of this harmful practice.

According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. It is well researched that educating girls has a strong ripple effect leading to individual, family, community and national improvements. The benefits include better health, peace, security, economic growth and improved prospects for the next generation. So it is not a surprise that one of the benefits of educating girls is a reduction in FGM. During 2012 and 2013 28 Too Many researchers have visited Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Mali and we have consistently seen evidence of the power of a good education in combating FGM.

So what exactly is making a difference?

Education challenges and changes perceptions about FGM - Educated women are more aware of the health risks of FGM and have a greater understanding of both the immediate and long term harm caused by it. Therefore they are much less likely to support the practice (Population Reference Bureau 2001) and are also less likely to have their daughters cut (UNICEF). The girls and women who have been educated are in turn able to influence their families and wider communities, teaching others about FGM and encouraging them to abandon the practice. In 2011 28 Too Many founder, Ann-Marie Wilson, met two women in rural Kenya who, through the power of their education, were not able only to avoid FGM themselves but have also brought about the end of the practice in their whole community. As a result of their campaign no girls in their village have had FGM for over seven years. 

Educated girls are better prepared to resist pressure to undergo FGM - When a girl is aware of the facts about FGM, this can help her resist if she comes under pressure to undergo FGM. Of course not all girls are aware that FGM is going to happen to them and may not have opportunity to discuss it in advance. However, when they do have the chance knowing exactly what FGM is, what harm it causes and that there is no health benefit or religious requirement to undergo it can make that critical difference and help the girls persuade others that FGM is not necessary. Being taught about FGM in school can also help girls who would not otherwise know how to recognise when they are at risk from FGM and enable them to seek help from people who can protect them.

Preventing early and forced marriage - Girls who attend school and do not undergo FGM are less likely to have early and/or forced marriages. In particular, girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education (DHS survey data). FGM is often a prerequisite for an early marriage and so keeping a girl in education not only means she is less likely to have an early marriage but also FGM is delayed until she is better able to resist any pressure to undergo the procedure. 

Promoting the value of education for all - When communities value a good education for all this also benefits the boys. It is just as important to ensure boys get a good education and are taught about FGM. This can help community reach a “tipping point” and recognise the benefits of abandoning FGM. The inspirational Masaai Cricket Warriors are a group of young men in Kenya who were educated about FGM and now campaign against the practice, using their sport to reach and empower other young people.

So Nelson Mandela’s assertion that education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world seems to be true for making changes in FGM practising communities. Governments and NGOs working on FGM need to make education a central part of their strategy and programmes. This will help ensure a safer and better life for millions of girls at risk of FGM each year and is critical in bringing about the total eradication of this harmful practice.

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