Advancing Community-led Change in the Movement to Abandon Female Genital Cutting

An interview with Activist Naima Dido

“If I can stop even just one girl from being cut, then I have achieved my goal,” says human rights and gender equality activist Naima Dido.

The ‘cut’ Naima speaks of refers to female genital cutting (FGC), a practice that has impacted an estimated 200 million girls and women around the globe, and that continues to affect at least 3 million girls in Africa each year.

FGC carries many immediate and long-term risks to health, including infections, problems with urinating and menstruation, or even death. In many communities worldwide it is a deeply rooted social norm with tangible impact: a girl who is not cut may escape the health risks of FGC but is often ostracized by her community and deemed undesirable for marriage. For many women in communities that practice FGC, marriage is the only way to support themselves.

Here, in conversation with Tostan, Naima shares about her experiences as a survivor and the role of human rights education in the growing global movement to abandon FGC.

Communities come together to declare their commitment to women and girls’ health, by abandoning harmful practices, in southern Senegal, November 2018

Tell me about your background Naima.

“I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. My father is from the Oromo tribe and my mother is Ajuran. My lineage is split between Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. In our culture, they say, there are three sorrows in a woman’s life — the day of circumcision, the wedding night, and the day she gives birth — and I have experienced all three. When I was nine, my mother arranged for my cutting. I still remember vividly that day, when I vowed to fight so that the dreams of other girl children will not be broken.. Two years later when I was 11 years old, my family and I moved to resettle in the United States, where I still live today. Having grown up in the US, I consider myself a third culture child, feeling like I belong nowhere and everywhere all at the same time.”

Why are you an activist and what does your role entail?

“As a survivor of FGC myself, I am determined to promote change. If I can stop even just one girl from being cut, then I have achieved my goal. In my role as an activist now, I collaborate with local communities to work towards a future where women and girls can take charge of their own bodies and their own futures.

“At the moment, I am Program Director at Seed Programs International, where I have been working with my team to develop women’s empowerment programs using gardens as the safe space to discuss sensitive topics like FGC, mental health, and child marriage. Before that, my experience stretches back 20 years now, of working predominantly with refugee and immigrant communities in the USA and Africa.”

Why do you believe so deeply in the Tostan approach?

“I believe in the power of change being community-led and dignity-centered, such as the approach used by Tostan.

“By using a human rights-based approach, Tostan puts emphasis on respecting and including everyone in the community, engaging not only women and girls but also men, elders, and religious leaders. One area I appreciate about the Tostan approach are the community-wide discussions they spark around social change, self-empowerment, and self-reliance. Change comes from learning to listen to the community and engaging people in asking themselves some hard questions.”

How does this differ from the typical activist approach to FGC?

“In the global activism to end FGC, it is too often neglected that the practice is intertwined so deeply with marriage. When we don’t take into account aspects of people’s lives such as religion, tradition, and the part they play in the resulting harmful practices, you cannot work towards positive change.

“Tostan’s community-led collaborative approach is all-inclusive. They educate the youth, women, men, elders and religious leaders about human rights, health, sanitation, conflict resolution, economic empowerment and parenting in discussions lead by facilitators that are from their very own communities.”

What is critical for change?

“Most importantly, we need to break the chain of ignorance. Cultural norms and community development shifts cannot occur without access to the information needed to understand why there is a need for changes.

“Sometimes I think, was there a point in my mother’s life where someone could’ve had a discussion with her that could’ve made my life different?

“My mother, a woman who has never held a pencil in her life, had a dream of educating me. And so, I became the first woman in my family to learn the power of literacy. Beyond the abilities to read and write for myself, my educational opportunities have empowered me to take control over my own mind and body, to know that I can mold my life and my future into whatever I wish. My mother and our female ancestors — with all of their obedience to culturally expected behavior — inspire me to reach for my own dreams; they are the ones who blazed the trails with their sweat, tears, and resilience so that I could trace my own path.

“My daughter is the first in the family to not be cut. As I was the first woman in the family to be educated, I have been able to make sure her life will be different.”

How do you feel about the future of this movement?

“Right now, I am optimistic and determined to reach my vision of a gender equitable future. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else but right here, right now, doing exactly this important work that is so life-giving, hope-giving, future-inspiring for myself and for the communities that I serve.

A Senegalese woman holds her daughter at a declaration ceremony, where she joins hundreds of community members in declaring a commitment to women and girls’ right to health, December 2018.

Naima collaborates with Tostan to spread positive messages for the future of the global movement to abandon FGC and other harmful practices. In February 2019, she spoke at the Family of Women Film Festival in Idaho with Tostan’s Suzanne Bowles. On March 13, 2019, during the UN Commission on the Status of Women, she moderates a panel discussion at International House, New York City, with Molly Melching and Holly Carter, following the screening of a documentary film directed by a young girl whose community made the decision to abandon FGC in 1998. Learn more about the film, Walk On My Own, here.

In 2018 Naima learnt methodologies and approaches for promoting community wellbeing, at the Tostan Training Center in Senegal. This approach is what underpins Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program: By invitation from the communities, Tostan facilitators hold thrice-a-week classes over three years, covering topics from human rights, democracy, health, and hygiene, to reading, writing, and project management. In the second year, the community is engaged in discussing reproductive health, including the health impacts of FGC, and able to question the alignment of their shared values with such practices. Through new knowledge and open dialogue they are empowered to create sustainable change themselves. Most importantly, they appreciate the why behind the change, and are able to design solutions that fit their own culture, values and needs.

To ensure that girls who are uncut will not be unable to marry, Tostan partner communities are responsible for ‘adopting’ a neighboring community, with whom they share the knowledge gained in the program. As these communities jointly decide to prioritize the well-being of girls by abandoning FGC, families will not have to worry about their daughters having trouble finding a husband in the future.

To date, Tostan’s programming since 1991 has sparked nearly 9,000 communities across Africa to publicly abandon FGC, affecting an estimated over 5.5 million people.

Young girls from Keur Simbara community in Senegal will grow up free from harmful practices and able to determine their own futures, January 2019