Conversion of cutters

Critical voices against conversion as a strategy to end FGM


Many critiques that have been raised in literature against the conversion of cutters as a strategy to end FGM.

Some of the main ones are:

  • The main motives of traditional practitioners performing FGM may not be financial gain  and generating alternative income may therefore be inefficient
  • Replacement by new cutters and / or development of cross-border FGM
  • Lack of clarity on whether ex-cutters actually have authority in their community when advocating out against FGM
  • Evidence that conversion of cutters is insufficient and of little use when it is the only strategy implemented to end FGM. It really needs to be part of a broader approach sensitizing the whole community and addressing mindsets and social norms.

During the discussion, there was disagreement among the members of the CoP on whether the conversion of cutters is an efficient strategy against FGM. As the discussion evolved, many of the members expressed that providing other sources of income for traditional practitioners does not necessarily translate into a reduced number of cut girls or a change of profession by cutters.

Despite the triumphalism advanced by the promoters of conversion strategies, members of the CoP stressed that evaluations from countries such as Mali, Guinea, Ethiopia, Senegal, Uganda, Kenya, Burkina Faso, etc. indicate that conversion programmes have not yielded the desired results. For example, the Malian experience shows that, at best, the efforts of this strategy helped a small number of practitioners to abandon the practice simply by ‘giving the knife’ to younger family members or to health agents.

During her research PHD research in Senegal, Annemarie Middelburg conducted interviews about the conversion of traditional cutters. It had been noticed that government officials, representatives of civil society organisations and UN agencies were not in favour of the alternative source of income approach. One person that she interviewed mentioned that the micro-credit project and income generating activities attracted women who had never performed FGM. She shared some insights from her research:

The programme stopped, because it had no effect. Each woman could come, to ask for financial support, and say that she was a cutter.” A representative of an international organization

“If women know that they can get money from an NGO to start a business, of course they will come to you and say that there are a cutter who wants to stop the practice.” A representative of civil society

In Annemarie’s research, respondents challenged the idea that FGM could be stopped by affecting the supply, i.e when there are no more cutters. The stakeholders interviewed by Annemarie in Senegal instead emphasized that the practice will stop only when there are no more clients (those seeking FGM), and not because of the scarcity of cutters. Respondents also explained that cutting is an honourable profession conferring respect and prestige within the community. They stressed that financial compensation, is not the main reason why practitioners perform FGM. One representative of civil society said:

“Cutters won’t stop if you give them money. They will only stop if they do not have any clients or customers anymore. It is like a store. The store does not work if the customers do not come. How are you going to sell if you don’t have customers in your shop? You won’t be able to sell anything. This is the same. If the cutter does not have customers anymore, she will do agriculture or other kinds of jobs, like all the other women. Only then they will stop.”

Another CoP member, Bano Barry, expressed a similar opinion based on his experience in Guinea:

What is certain is that this strategy has not had an effect on demand, because FGM is a lucrative act. After the ceremonies, the camera and the speeches, the traditional practitioners quickly resume the practice.”

Barry questioned the idea behind the strategy of “if there are no excisors, there will be no excision”.

Trainings of traditional cutters has been designed to reduce the supply of excision which would then have an effect on demand, but according to his experience this does not yield the expected outcome.

A member from Belgium, Sam Jazairi, shared a programme implemented in four clans of Migori county in Kenya, where elders and cutters were given a monthly allowances to help reduce the practice. The experiment according to his testimony was not successful as all the girls from that region were cut the following season: “People’s norms cannot be changed using money as a tool. Alternative source of income in its best-case scenario will stop few from practicing and will hold for a few weeks or months.”

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