Which Challenges do we face when implementing Gender Transformative Approaches to ending FGM?

Experts in the International stakeholder dialogue agreed that a gender-transformative approach (GTA) must go further than the empowerment of women and girls and really challenge the social order that lead to gender inequality. GTAs include measures aiming to inform/sensitize or even transform men and boys on the issue of toxic masculinity, to challenge gendered social norms, including harmful gender stereotypes, and favoring women and girls’ empowerment. Such programmes must challenge gender roles and gender power dynamics, and work to counter them both at all levels of society.

The socio-ecological model situates individuals within their broader environments and “considers the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors. It allows us to understand the range of factors that put people at risk for violence or protect them from experiencing or perpetrating violence.” (Center for disease control and prevention) Using this model allows for the understanding that “power imbalances and harmful gender norms at every level are likely to underpin cutting and need to be addressed in order to achieve sustainable change”. (Orchid Project, 2021)

Gender-transformative approaches are relatively new in the anti-FGM sector, despite these approaches being used in other areas of  development projects programming. Thus, one of the sessions of the international stakeholders dialogue focused on challenges that arise while adopting a GTA to FGM prevention and care. The aim was identify the barriers that are hindering the application of truly gender transformative programmes. This article summarizes the challenges which were identified by the participants of the working groups during the ISD.

Subtitle: Challenges to implementing gender-transformative anti-FGM programmes

The challenges identified were categorized in four main societal levels, based on the socio-ecological model:

  • Individual
  • Relationship
  • Community
  • Societal

The Individual & Relationship levels include the roles of each community member in the perpetuation of practices such as FGM, the way decisions are made by individuals, or at family level, and address gender and intergenerational power (im)balances. It was stressed that younger generation have less power than older persons in the community  and the little power they hold is reduced if they are women/girls. Women and men in the community also play very different roles in the perpetuation of FGM as girls and women are those that both suffer and conduct the practice while boys and men are generally not involved in the activity and sometimes have limited knowledge about FGM and its consequences. Furthermore, the very nature of the subject of FGM being taboo creates an inherent difficulty​ to implementing an approach that is gender transformative.

Thus, the following specific challenges were emphasized for the Individual & Relationship levels:

Individual level challenges

  • Lack of understanding by men of how FGM is an issue of gender inequality and a type of GBV.
  • Lack of willingness among men and boys to question power relations and their own role in society and the impact this has on women and girls.
  • Resistance from men who do not want to give up their privilege, not just on FGM but other gender equality programmes: the fear that if they cannot control women, they will lose their standing and value in their communities.
  • Weak involvement of men, especially young boys, in programs to promote the abandonment of FGM and more broadly in programs challenging gender roles, dynamics and stereotypes including toxic masculinities, sexuality, etc.
  • The lack of power of girls and women to stand up for their rights and against FGM. 
  • Lack of full inclusion of all gender identities in available tools on ending FGM (e.g., person who underwent FGM but does not identify as a cisgender woman in their adult life).

Relational level challenges

  • The failure to take into account intergenerational power (im)balances and lack of dialogue between youth and seniors on gender norms and FGM. 
  • The reluctance of parents or families to socialize children in an open and less gender norm-restrictive manner. 
  • Fear of interpersonal conflicts which can arise when questioning gender roles, norms and relationships (e.g., between husband and wife, father and daughter, mothers and daughters, young boys and girls, etc.).
  • The difficulty for anti-FGM advocates to raise awareness against FGM publicly for fear or negative consequences.

The Community level“explores the settings, such as schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, in which social relationships occur and seeks to identify the characteristics of these settings that are associated with becoming victims or perpetrators of violence.” (Center for disease control and prevention) Participants emphasized that because of the ‘’long term’’ nature of gender transformative approaches, or at least the fact that it will take a long time before seeing change, some stakeholders do not prioritize GTA. They also stressed that programmes aiming at challenging gender and social norms will inevitably create some tensions or conflicts between community members.

Community level challenges

  • Resistance from educators, parents and community and religious leaders when discussions about gender are brought to the table. 
  • Fear of project implementers and community members to provoke tensions or conflicts by raising uncomfortable topics, such as FGM or gender norms. 
  • Ensuring the continuity of gender transformative efforts which require a significant amount of time to be effectively implemented. 
  • The difficulty of challenging customs and traditions within communities as well as the particularly taboo subjects of sexuality and FGM which can usually be approached only by initially raising a different topic.
  • Communication on what a gender transformative approach is, including translating the term into languages other than English.

The Society level “looks at the broad societal factors that help create a climate in which violence is encouraged or inhibited” (Center for disease control and prevention) In terms of FGM this can be social and cultural norms that support the practice, and policies that maintain economic or social inequalities between women and men.

Society level challenges

  • Lack of women’s meaningful engagement on GBV and FGM. This is linked to women and girls’ lack of autonomy, including financial independence and ability to self-organise and raise awarenes. Moreover, women may be unwilling to challenge aspects of gender inequality that are seemingly giving power to them (such as “power” inside of the household, over traditions, over the education of children) and may be perpetrators or supporters of FGM.
  • Weak engagement of youth in decision-making spaces.
  • Opposition to questioning gender norms by religious or traditional leaders. Some religious leaders also promote FGM by quoting religious texts claiming that FGM is an obligation​. In practicing communities which are strongly faith-oriented and where religious leaders are very respected individuals, it becomes difficult to counter their arguments.
  • The strength of gender norms and their invisibility to those who are part of the culture.
  • Little or no comprehensive sexuality education programs within national school curricula; educational systems failing to encourage critical thinking or question authority.
  • Lack of understanding of gender transformative approaches by donors, CSOs, NGOs, international organizations…
  • Lack of political will, including lacking implementation of laws against FGM (or lacking laws), failure to take FGM issues into account in local development plans and in annual investment plans, lacking long-term funding and low synergies between State, religious and customary laws.
  • Lack of free and accessible healthcare and psycho-social services for survivors of FGM. 
  • The participants emphasized several operational challenges to implementing gender transformative approaches, including:
    • The high cost, as these approaches require significant resources and time investment as well as multidisciplinary partnerships or consortia to be delivered, can deter CSOs from attempting to implement this kind of approach.
    • Funders preferring shorter projects with more tangible results over long-term programmes aiming for generational change.
    • Mentoring and evaluating the gender transformational capacities of any given project: it is hard to measure changes in social norms and perceptions.
    • Small CSOs or grassroots organisations are prevented from applying for funding which would allow them to implement a gender transformative approach due to their limited resources or capacities.
    • The risk of only a partial application, e.g., involving male allies who are against FGM but support or fail to question broader gender norms which benefit them.
    • The need to balance the need for urgent action to eradicate a harmful practice such as FGM and the long-term approach necessary to implement a gender transformative approach.
    • Lack of ownership by staff working on projects on SRHR/ GBV/ FGM or service providers and reproduction of gender inequalities inside or CSOs and INGOs working to end FGM.     
    • Lack of data on the prevalence of FGM and other types of gender-based violence, including with diaspora communities in host countries.
    • Lack of adequate communication channels to raise awareness, especially in security crisis or pandemic conditions.

The International stakeholders working groups on GTA expressed that there is a need to include groups and audiences who seem not to be ready to use the GTA, and spend time working with groups that are still against the abandonment of FGM. They argued that gender-transformative approaches will start to show results when they include a larger audience and include those that are often overlooked in programmes. This will also bring stakeholders to consider new aspects of the issue, to shift their mindset and thus to drive actual change in the communities.

An important lesson from the dialogue on gender transformative approaches is that tackling FGM as a single issue is not enough. On the one hand, if the root causes behind FGM are not addressed the practice may go down but will not be completely eradicated. On the other hand, an approach that does not address FGM within the continuum of violence against girls and women may lead to a reduction of FGM while other GBV remains constant. 

“The Community of Practice on Female Genital Mutilation” is part of the “Building Bridges between Africa and Europe to tackle FGM” project, supported by the “UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM”.
The project is coordinated by AIDOS in partnership with GAMS Belgium.

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UNFPA, UNICEF or any other agency or organization.

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