Intergenerational aspects

The role of each generation in the abolition of FGM


Young and old have different skills and assets, but both can participate in the fight against FGM.

The particular role of older women: maintaining and advancing traditions

Elderly women play a central role in maintaining Female Genital Mutilation as a tradition. Many people in practicing communities consider the practice to be inherited from their ancestors, as in the phrase often heard by Shell-Duncan and her colleagues during their study in Senegal and Gambia: “we found it at our grandmothers’ house”. In addition, FGM and the education that was (or is) traditionally associated with it, is part of the process of young women learning to submit not only to their husbands but also to older women in their community (including their mothers-in-law). (Shell-Duncan et al., 2018) According to the authors, the communities they encountered pay strong attention to maintaining traditions, “as a means of promoting social continuity, passing on the values and wisdom of elders, maintaining social hierarchy, and shaping cultural identity.”

Similarly, when integrating into the Bundu women’s society in Sierra Leone, girls and women are taught to submit to elder women (mothers, future mothers-in-law, grandmothers, and other elder women in the community).

However, the experience of Shell-Duncan & al. in Senegal and Gambia showed that there is also a willingness on the part of communities to re-evaluate tradition and shape it to changing needs and realities. Elderly women appear to play a central role in this process.  (Shell-Duncan et al. 2018) This may seem paradoxical at first since we often hear that FGM is perpetuated by grandmothers to respect ancestral traditions. There are preconceived notions that older women would not be able to integrate new ideas or learn new practices. However, Shell-Duncan et al. and other authors, such as Aubel (2004), believe that older women are well positioned to change the practice of FGM.

In order to sow the seeds of sustainable change, social hierarchy must be used to make power structures within society more transparent. Who could have more power to change the practice than those who perpetuate it? When the wisdom of grandmothers and other elders is recognized by all, and when tradition serves to maintain this hierarchy by transmitting values such as respect for elders, grandmothers can also become agents of positive change. More than young people, older women can negotiate change in a sustainable way.

“Despite their role as guardians of tradition, we found many instances where older women’s views on FGM/C show great fluidity…In essence, they ensure the continuity of tradition and cultural identity by carefully negotiating change. In contrast, younger women who lack the moral authority to question norms and challenge the custom of elders were much less likely to express ambivalence or opposition to the norms surrounding FGM/C.” (Shell-Duncan et al. 2018)

Thus, project as the “Grandmother projects”, implemented in Uganda or Senegal, rely on the role of older women to foster social change. In the Amudat region of Uganda, 50 grandmothers have been trained to advocate the ending of FGM with appropriate messages. By 2013, the grandmothers had conducted 10 exchange sessions to encourage abandoning FGM among 114 girls. This program is still ongoing and supported by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program (2019).  In Senegal, another “grandmother project” was implemented by World Vision in 2008 with the objective of promoting positive community attitudes and social norms regarding FGM, early marriage and physical punishment and reducing Pregnancy among teenagers. The innovative approach incorporated intergenerational dialogue in community and school activities and the active participation of elders, particularly grandmothers.

The project evaluations showed that grandmothers could be considered invaluable agents of change through their role in the community and their families. In addition, the project strengthened relationships and communication between the different generations, which led to effective awareness raising against FGM and positive changes in cultural traditions. (Baumgartner, J./Together women rise, 2015)

The contribution of young people to the dialogue: breaking taboos

Young women have a central role to play in perpetuating or ending FGM, particularly because they are directly affected by the issue and because they are the future generations of parents and decision-makers in their communities.

Obviously, for some girls and young women, getting involved in the fight against FGM is a matter of protecting themselves and/or other young girls from excision. It is about making one’s voice heard in a society where the practice may be deeply rooted and not questioned. And this in the face of older people who hold the power of decision over the practice.

For young people who are about to enter or have just entered the world of sexuality, it is also important to be able to break down taboos by talking about sexuality issues and pass on information, including about sexual problems that may be experienced by women and girls who have been cut. This is especially important because young women and men will be able to talk to their future children in a more peaceful manner.

Young people can also be involved in the struggle as a generation of future leaders with a civic responsibility for change. Youth-led initiatives can strengthen government accountability. For adolescents, especially girls, advocacy for societal causes, such as the fight against FGM, can also strengthen their empowerment within society (Coppieters, 2012).

The social life of youth today is fundamentally linked to the topic of new means of communication, social networks and other new technologies. Unlike older people whose transmission is more often oral, young people bring new modes of communication in the fight against FGM unlike older people who transmit their experiences, their life experiences orally. They thus play a key role in the transmission of anti-FGM messages in every corner of the world. Indeed, today many campaigns against FGM are now done via hashtags on Twitter, Youtube videos or podcasts featuring testimonies of affected people.

Intergenerational dialogue strategies promote the legitimacy of young people to speak to older people, to give their opinions and develop their ideas about FGM. This raises awareness of the importance of children and youth as agents of change and places them at the center of reflections around the future of “living together” in the community.

Anti-FGM organizations have targeted young people specifically to enable them to raise their voices against the practice. One example is the youth ambassadors of the European network End FGM EU – young women from countries where FGM is a common practice – who have launched the Youtube channel “Purple Chair”. In one of these videos, Salamata Wone dialogues with her mother, herself an activist against FGM.

  • What role do you think young and older people in your community play in terms of making decisions to keep or abandon FGM?
  • How can young people, adults, older people be involved?
  • How can we facilitate dialogue between different generations?
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