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Mini Dialogue During Hibiscus Harvest 3

The Generation Dialogue in Egypt: Creating space for conversations about the persistence of Female Genital Mutilation

The Jesuit Development Association uses the hibiscus harvest for conducting mini dialogues on the commitments made at the Public Meeting.

‘Like a stone into stagnant water’

Hanaa Beshara and her colleagues at the Jesuit Development Association have spent countless hours in recent years talking to people across Minya Governate, in Upper Egypt, about the harms associated with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). 

Despite being outlawed in Egypt since 2008, the practice remains widespread: an estimated 89 percent of girls and women in Minya between the ages of 15 and 49 have undergone FGM. Aware of how difficult it can be to engage community members on the topic, Hanaa Beshara was stunned by what transpired in the community of Beni Ebied during 2020 and 2021.

‘The Generation Dialogue was like throwing a stone into stagnant water,’ she said:

Once community members got beyond the initial “strange feeling” of talking to each other without there being right or wrong answers, they began to speak openly with one another and to share real stories from their lives. I saw how much they enjoyed being in a circle of discussion.

Hanaa Beshara

The Generation Dialogue comes to Egypt

Developed more than 20 years ago, in Guinea, with support from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Generation Dialogue is an approach which can initiate processes of social change in places where traditional beliefs sustain practices, like FGM, which have harmful effects on the health and well-being of community members. It creates space for younger and older members of a community to talk about their beliefs and values, without fear of judgment, and to be listened to respectfully. Dialogues have been implemented in more than 10 countries in Africa and Asia, on a range of topics, with support from the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) on behalf of BMZ.

In 2019, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) worked with the GIZ-implemented Sector Programme ‘Promoting Gender Equality’ to bring the Generation Dialogue to Egypt under the auspices of the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on the Elimination of FGM.

Conventional strategies for countering FGM – from criminalisation and legal penalties to education and awareness campaigns – have been bringing about only gradual declines in prevalence among younger generations in Egypt. And, in some respects, they have been backfiring, driving the practice into the shadows or in the direction of ‘medicalisation’ (where parents pay healthcare providers to perform FGM on their daughters in a sterile environment). Even under such conditions, however, FGM can lead to serious health problems, in addition to violating women’s and girls’ right to non-discrimination and freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (UNFPA, 2018). This has prompted organisations, like UNFPA, which are committed to ending FGM to explore alternative approaches which seek to understand the reasons why families continue this harmful tradition as a first step to eventually overcoming it.

The Generation Dialogue and the ‘3Rs’ of Feminist Development Policy

The Generation Dialogue initiates discussions in communities about the reasons for harmful practices and their effects on women’s and girls’ well-being, and supports community members to plan steps to overcome such practices. In doing so, it ensures that women’s and girls’ views and experiences are represented in community discussions and planning, and supports women and girls in realising their human rights and in formulating and attaining the psychological and material resources they need to do so.

‘I thought the Generation Dialogue could really work in Egypt,’ recalled May El Sallab, a FGM programme analyst with UNFPA. ‘I liked how it acknowledged the complexities of FGM and didn’t only look at it in a negative light.’

With its focus on intergenerational dialogue, the method also offered a promising way to engage both younger and older people. At the time, May El Sallab was looking for a specific way to reach mothers-in-law and grandmothers:

In my experience mothers-in-law and grandmothers represent the biggest pockets of resistance to the abandonment of FGM. I thought the Generation Dialogue would be a good fit.

May El Sallab

One year, six communities, more than 3000 people in dialogue about FGM

During 2020 and 2021, UNFPA Egypt supported three of its partner organisations – CARE Egypt, Etijah and Y-Peer – to implement the Generation Dialogue in five governates in Upper Egypt. Following a cascade model, each partner supported a community-based organisation from within its network to carry out the seven steps of the Generation Dialogue cycle in one or more communities where they were already working on projects to combat FGM. 

‘The Dialogue methodology is complex and there was a lot to learn at first,’ said Amira Hussein, a FGM researcher and activist who steered the overall process in Egypt on behalf of UNFPA, with technical backstopping from Anna von Roenne, a senior Dialogue expert commissioned by GIZ.

The coordinators had so many questions! And they were skeptical when they learned that they were not to intervene to “correct” beliefs or attitudes which they considered to be wrong. We had to take a leap of faith and trust the process. But from the very beginning, it worked.

Amira Hussein

Different from traditional awareness-raising sessions, in which people from outside the community come and share information with residents, the Generation Dialogue is rooted squarely in the community – and actually led, in part, by community facilitators who are identified by their peers. 

‘The method forces us to be alert, to listen to community members and to learn from them,’ said Amira Hussein. ‘It was not always easy, but I loved every minute of this experience.’

Public Meeting
Men present their pledges at a Public Meeting

Across the six participating communities, more than 1,000 people took part in the so-called Community Consultations – semi-structured discussions in which younger and older women and men reflect in four separate groups on their beliefs and values, and on their relationships with the other generation. Then, in each community, a core ‘Group of 48’ younger and older women and men participated in six facilitated Dialogue sessions, first in gender-specific groups and then joined together. More than 2,000 people took part in Mini-Dialogues – informal conversations in the community in which the key commitments of the Dialogue process are discussed and shared.

It can take up to a year to implement a full cycle of the Generation Dialogue – a significant commitment. Notably, all six communities completed the full process and all six ‘Groups of 48’ remained intact and energised until the very end. In some of the communities, the ‘Group of 48’ continues even now to act as volunteer facilitators in activities organised by the community-based organisation. 

New roles and a new sense of purpose

Beni Ebied, in Minya Governate, is a case in point. Here, the Generation Dialogue exceeded all expectations. Hanaa Beshara, who coordinated the Generation Dialogue in Beni Ebied, was struck by the changes she witnessed in a community she has worked in for many years:

I never could have imagined that I would see young women stand up at a public meeting and speak openly before older members of the community.

Hanaa Beshara

She also noticed how the Generation Dialogue provided a meaningful role and sense of purpose for older women and men. Towards the end of the Dialogue cycle, one of the older women asked for help to enroll in a literacy class. As Hanaa Beshara explained: ‘She felt very strongly that important things were being talked about and that these needed to be written down in reports and shared. But because she was illiterate, she could not be sure that this was the case.’ 

At the final Public Meeting in Beni Ebied, an older man stood up and said that he felt his life had ended when he retired, but that the Generation Dialogue had given him ‘a role in the community and a new life.’

Religious leaders embrace the Generation Dialogue and become agents of change

Religious leaders became increasingly involved in the Dialogue in Beni Ebied as the process unfolded. Hanaa Beshara explained that there was a notable increase from the initial consultations to the Public Meetings and final consultations. ‘There is often an assumption that religious leaders are pro-FGM, but this is not the case,’ she explained. ‘Major religious institutions work closely with the government to spread the word that FGM does not have a religious basis. Still, at the local level there is concern about possible backlash from the community if FGM is discussed too directly, for example in Friday sermons.’

The Generation Dialogue sessions were important because they created a totally new space where religious leaders and community members could interact on equal footing:

When a religious leader would talk or express an opinion at the Public Meeting, it of course carried a higher weight. But what was important was that it came after respectful listening to community members of different ages and genders.

Hanaa Beshara

Dialogue approaches can unlock reflection on many sensitive topics

The Generation Dialogue is well suited for addressing sensitive topics like FGM because it gently guides community members to talk about the underlying reasons why so many people continue to support a practice which they know to be harmful. The Dialogue process as such is gender-transformative in that it enables participants to critically reflect on, and challenge, the gender norms underlying FGM, as well as other attitudes and practices that reflect persisting gender inequalities.

A role play exercise during Women’s Dialogue sessions
A role play exercise during Women’s Dialogue sessions

In many of the communities in Egypt, the Dialogue opened up frank discussions about ‘marriageability’ and the deep fear families have that their daughters might be returned to their father’s household when it is learned that they are not circumcised. For Hanaa Beshara, these conversations touched the ‘core’ of the issue and were a very welcome outcome. 

In hindsight, however, she has come to believe that the main benefit of the Generation Dialogue is not the specific topic it addresses, but its power to enhance communication within families and communities:

We heard during the Community Consultations that dialogue is weak inside many families,’ What I see now is that, if the dialogue is good, we can talk about anything.

Hanaa Beshara

UNFPA Egypt is scaling up the approach nationwide

UNFPA Egypt regards the first round of implementation as a success. ‘The feedback was very positive, especially from the coordinators and facilitators,’ says May El Sallab. ‘It was the first time they ever worked with a “positive approach” to FGM. They saw that it leads to less resistance.’  

Based on this experience, UNFPA Egypt intends to scale up the Generation Dialogue countrywide. It also plans to introduce the approach to the National Council for Women, so that it can integrate the method into its own FGM programming.

German development cooperation continues to provide targeted assistance to enable the effective implementation of the Generation Dialogue. The experience in Egypt marked the first time that the method was fully implemented by local organisations, using the Generation Dialogue online toolkit, developed by GIZ, which provides step-by-step guidance to organisations that want to implement the approach. 

This important milestone is in keeping with German development cooperation’s commitment, as part of Germany’s new Feminist Development Policy, to facilitate participation by local civil society organisations, and particularly feminist civil society, in relevant initiatives. The Dialogue approach itself embodies the post-colonial ambition of Feminist Development Policy in the way it fosters respectful and context-specific dialogue, rather than presenting solutions developed elsewhere.

Karen Birdsall & Anna von Roenne
June 2023

© Jesuit Development Association
© Jesuit Development Association
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