MEN INVOLVEMENT WITH A GENDER TRANSFORMATIVE APPROACH TO END FGM
Thematic content of the community dialogue sessions as part of the Community Gender Transformative Approach: what can we learn from the exchanges in the COP FGM?
One of the crucial elements of the community gender transformative approach is the organization of community dialogue sessions. Indeed, these dialogue sessions constitute the initial phase of the community gender transformative approach. As a reminder, this approach involves training facilitators from the concerned communities who conduct gender and generation-specific dialogue sessions (to encourage discussions) addressing topics such as relationships between men and women, socialization experiences, issues related to sexuality and pleasure (to connect with the impact of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting – FGM/C), sexual and reproductive rights, and gender-based violence. These dialogue sessions occur every two weeks.
During this period, participants are encouraged to engage with at least five people from their neighborhood to disseminate the messages and create an impact on the community. After the completion of the seven dialogue sessions, the four groups (8 married women, 8 married men, 8 unmarried young women, 8 unmarried young men) come together, mix, and share their experiences, discussing what was easy or difficult during the sessions and how it has changed them individually, within their families, and in their community.
The community dialogue sessions revolve around seven themes:
- Session 1: What is a man, what is a woman (difference between sex and gender)
- Session 2: How are we socialized, what roles are expected of us
- Session 3: Sexuality, Family planning, Personal hygiene
- Session 4: FGM, sexuality and pleasure
- Session 5: Sexual and reproductive rights
- Session 6: Gender-based violence
- Session 7: How to prevent violence: managing emotions, dialogue.
While all members agreed on the importance of these community dialogue sessions in challenging social and gender norms, there were hesitations among some members in addressing the theme of “FGM, sexuality and pleasure.” Some members pointed out that, especially in the contexts they work, notably in Muslim communities, discussing sexuality and pleasure was a real challenge because men and women are not yet ready to openly discuss these topics in public: “Regarding the thematic content of these dialogues, I agree to include all the themes except for the one related to pleasure. Being in an Islamic community where such subjects cannot yet be openly discussed, I believe that these taboo questions in our societies can be put aside until they are accepted, and the ground is conducive to debate,” member of the COP Senegal, ACT approach, 2023.
Facing these challenges, other members shared their methodologies to address sexuality and pleasure. It was emphasized that there is a need to prepare minds to accept that sexuality can be discussed outside of marital contexts. Discussing sexuality and pleasure remains delicate in some Muslim communities, requiring the development of an approach that caters to the needs and expectations of these communities. During the discussions, COP members highlighted that the discussion about sexuality is not limited to a single community but concerns most African societies. They proposed, as a first step, scheduling this session towards the end of the program and ensuring that these discussions take place among same-sex individuals, respecting the discretion and modesty that this topic entails: “The question of pleasure in the context of Muslim communities is entirely debatable. It only needs to be staged within the context of marriage and, obviously, after warning the community members and connecting with them, meaning it is not a topic to be addressed on the first day. We have always addressed this topic towards the end. If it was a group of women, the facilitators were women, and vice versa for men. Since Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting is practiced for control purposes (in the name of chastity, modesty, etc.), it was essential to talk about the right to pleasure and enjoyment of sexuality. Talking about the right to pleasure and enjoyment of sexuality was unavoidable because it is a right that Muslim women have. However, it should be discussed in the context of marriage,” explained a member of the COP Senegal, ACT approach, 2023.
However, the taboo surrounding sexuality and pleasure in some Muslim communities remains controversial and does not have unanimous agreement: “The group consisted of men in their thirties, from various backgrounds, and mostly Muslims. It turns out that subjects related to sexuality were strongly demanded by the participants. From what I recall, we did not initiate the discussion, but participants themselves brought up these questions, which we then addressed and gave the necessary space for discussion. I observe the same thing in the women’s community workshop we are currently conducting, with the central theme of ‘satisfying sexuality.’ Our experience has shown that this topic is of great interest to the concerned public. A subject that does not tire of being discussed,” shared by a member of the COP Belgium, ACT approach, 2023.
What can be learned from this debate: Here are some methods that can help stimulate discussions about sexuality and pleasure with men, according to Seydou Niang (trainer and member of the MGF COP):
As we know, talking about sex in public, especially in societies where public space is highly sexualized visually, is not easy. Even in areas where sexuality is visually omnipresent, openly discussing it is difficult. This difficulty arises from how sexuality is associated with everyone’s intimacy and the cultural and religious teachings that tend to consider it as something dirty, a sin, etc. Even where it is tolerated, it is often limited to its reproductive function, with pleasure considered the work of the devil that needs to be guarded against.
However, the subject is not as taboo as one might think in many communities: “I usually say it’s just encoded; you need to know how to decode it with respect for the sensitivities of the communities.” This is true in many communities in Africa. It is rare to follow an informal discussion of a group (especially if it consists only of men) for an hour without sex emerging as a topic. It might not be very in-depth, but it is an indicator showing that it is possible to discuss sexuality publicly with men.
As with any topic one wishes to address with a specific group, it is preferable to allow the group itself to introduce it. Even though we generally believe it is essential to address the topic and not necessarily a demand from the group initially, the involvement of men in the process of abandoning FGM/C, in communities where normative gender relations are the rule, cannot be done without talking about sexuality: this is a perfect illustration.
Here are some general tips based on facilitation skills:
- Feel comfortable addressing the subject (discomfort shows in non-verbal cues and might reinforce participants’ discomfort)
- Use humor (it relaxes and lightens the mood) – demystify sex.
- Emphasize the importance of addressing the topic for the well-being of the group (if the group is closed)
- Give time and space to allow the group to question the weight of socio-cultural expectations as men
- Prepare statements about the topic and ask if participants agree or not (this creates distance, and it is easier to initiate discussion by talking about “what others do”)
- Find out how the topic is approached in the community and use those channels initially (understand the codes, images, and expressions)
- Dare to share your own personal journey before reaching the comfort of discussing the topic (we all had a moment when we were uncomfortable with the subject due to our upbringing)
- Have a male figure in facilitation and, if possible, do it in pairs (male-female) – Unfortunately, before reaching the desired stage, we must rely on inequalities to engage participants and achieve the desired change. Ignoring this reality hampers our efforts.
- Discussing FGM/C can be a very effective entry point to talk about sexuality (especially partner communication). Many men have limited knowledge about the subject. By approaching it interactively, you capture their attention. FGM/C cannot be discussed without talking about sex and sexuality.
- Invite participants to reflect on the concepts of desire and sexual pleasure (this can be done with playful exercises). You can also start with a simpler question about what is commonly expected in a sexual relationship – procreation – then ask if it can be accompanied by pleasure. If it is accepted to talk about it, how can it be done?… Have follow-up questions.
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