Intergenerational dialogue as a way to lift the taboo on FGM
Why establish an intergenerational dialogue on FGM?
In FGM practicing communities such as Senegal and The Gambia, FGM is closely linked to the maintenance of tradition as a means of venerating ancestors and the social values they transmit. In addition, the practice is performed to pay respect to elders, which includes the intergenerational and hierarchical lineage of women. (Shell-Duncan & al. 2018)
From generation to generation FGM is often perpetuated quietly and goes unquestioned. As with any topic involving intimacy, sexuality, and violence, it is particularly difficult for a young person to discuss FGM with their mother, grandmother, or other elders in their community, as it can be portrayed as a lack of respect. Each generation plays a specific role in maintaining or abandoning the practice.
Based on this observation, one of the strategies needed to fight FGM is the dialogue between generations. To understand why FGM is practiced, why mothers who have often suffered themselves, decide to inflict this suffering on their daughters in turn and why does the majority of the population support it? These questions are necessary to make people aware of alternative solutions and to lift the immense weight of taboo that continues to prevail in communities. Dialogue is the enemy of a well-kept secret.
Intergenerational dialogue can take place at different levels: at the community level or at the family level.
Community-based intergenerational dialogues
At a community level, dialogues between different generations are organized within the framework of a project or by community leaders to facilitate engagement. These engagements are in most cases supported by state or government programs. There are several models and strategies for implementing community dialogues. UNFPA has published this guide for the preparation, implementation and evaluation of community dialogues focusing on gender-based violence.
An intergenerational dialogue project was implemented in Guinea in 2003 as part of the Support to Initiatives for Abandoning Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Through workshops, the project allowed groups composed of men and women of different generations, to express themselves. Both generations took time to reflect:
- What are the differences between our story(s) and those of others?
- How did we arrive at our point of view?
- If we were in their position, would we see things differently?
- Where can we agree, and where do we want to maintain our differences?
These workshops highlighted the perception differences on FGM between the generations:
“The girls were unanimous demanding to abandon the practice of excision. They rejected the argument that excision was an initiation with educational functions. […] The majority of older women recognized these arguments, but they wanted to maintain a minimal cut of the clitoris or simply a visit from a health worker who pretends to cut and puts a bandage on It, as a symbol. From their point of view, the social consequences for uncut girls and women would be too harsh, while “make-believe” represents an acceptable solution for a transitional period.” (Eschborn, 2005)
The project evaluation showed that participating families had a significantly higher level of communication between parents and children, including about FGM, compared to families who did not participate in the project.
The German Development agency (GIZ), who supported the Guinean project on FGM, has helped implement intergenerational dialogues in 11 countries on a range of thematic topics. Their Generation Dialogue website provides an overview of Dialogue experiences implemented by the cooperation and their partners, to date. A specitif toolkit based on this work can also be found here.
Intergenerational dialogues at the family level
At the family level, intergenerational dialogue can take place between members of the same family, such as a daughter asking her mother why she was cut or on the contrary, why her mother chose to protect her from being cut.
The family is an institution of primary socialization that allows the individual to construct his or her relationship with the Other, to become a member of society. However, “this group experiences tensions, conflicts and assignments that are linked to the social constructs and expectations of the proper conduct of its members”. Therefore, while the family plays this role in the social and identity construction of the individual, it is itself based on specific, historical, social, political contexts (Bessaoud-Alonso Carvalho Romagnoli, 2019).
It is sometimes difficult to talk about one’s trauma or to ask one’s family questions on sensitive topics such as FGM, even as one speaks publicly on the subject. Indeed, within the family, this dialogue means confronting a familiar face, there is still fear of rejection. Khadidiatou Diallo, founder of the GAMS Belgium association that fights FGM, tells us how she finally dared to tell her family that she was opposed to the practice and that she was participating in the fight to end it:
“In 1995, I decided to talk about FGM with my parents. I returned to Senegal with my youngest daughter, born in Belgium. She was only 6 months old. I arrived at night, and the next morning I called my whole family together. I had started to work on excision in Belgium as part of my language courses, and I was in the process of launching an association to fight the practice [GAMS Belgium]. I said to myself, ‘This is the moment, you’ll see if you have the courage to talk about this with your parents. Because if I couldn’t talk about it with my family, how could I create an association and talk about it in public? I had to start with my family.”
Thus, promoting intergenerational dialogue within the family means creating a space for discussion and dialogue within the family circle to unravel the taboos and suffering from personal history. To do so, it is necessary to deconstruct the idea that children should not know certain aspects of their parent’s life or that the child does not have the right to give his or her opinion or feelings about a situation.
The benefits of intergenerational dialogue
Facilitating discussions on excision within the family or community allows people to put words to their experiences, to revisit decisions that were made for them in the past, to discuss family history, or to explain why it is practiced in the community. Thanks to these dialogues, those who support or have supported the practice are confronted with questions that the young people would never have dared to ask outside this specific context. Indeed, talking about FGM or refusing to undergo it is a decision that generates pressures such as sanctions, insults and so much more. This ends up creating internalized moral standards that define right and wrong.
It is not about making the previous generations and in particular women, feel guilty by judging their decisions and their actions. Understanding intergenerational trauma allows an equal understanding of this harmful transmission. The challenge of these dialogues is to establish contact so that members of the same community or family can talk, learn, understand, and deconstruct their fears and prejudices.
Although we agree that dialogue between family members is a good strategy, we cannot ignore that this activity may not necessarily be supported by the older generation. This discussion may not always lead to practical and mutually agreeable solutions because of the power dynamics and decision-making that are tilted toward the older generation.
- Have you ever used intergenerational dialogue in your projects? What was the result?
- Do you think this is a strategy that would work for your community/society structure?
- Have you ever discussed excision with your parents or grandparents, or do you have examples of discussions that have taken place in your communities?
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