In Guinea, the practice of female genital cutting persisted despite decades of campaigning against it. When local NGOs changed tack and started to listen and appreciate the values and concerns underpinning the practice, a new way forward opened up – and the Generation Dialogue was born.
Two decades ago female genital cutting was nearly universal in Guinea: 98% of women surveyed in the 1999 Demographic and Health Survey reported that they had undergone the procedure. Despite many years of campaigning by local and international organisations to educate Guineans about the harmful consequences of this traditional practice, families continued to have their daughters cut. The social pressure surrounding this custom was so great that even staff members of NGOs campaigning against the practice admitted that they had had their daughters undergo female genital cutting. Education and awareness raising were clearly not enough to change people’s attitudes and behaviour.
Recognising that traditional campaigning is not effective
In a German-supported review of the results of their work, several Guinean NGOs working to eliminate female genital cutting recognised that their campaigns had not been as effective as they had hoped. They agreed to a consultant’s suggestion to halt their work against the practice until they had gained a better understanding of the reasons why families continued to hold it in such high esteem. In 2000, with support from the BMZ-commissioned supra-regional project ‘Promotion of initiatives to end female genital mutilation’, they undertook an action research exercise during which they held focus group discussions with different groups in the community, including women and men, the young and the old, health workers and traditional excisors who undertook the procedure.
Exploring, and appreciating, the reasons for the tradition
Instead of ‘educating’ people about the harms of female genital cutting, the NGOs came with many questions about the reasons for the custom, and the hopes and concerns related to it. In their new role as researchers, they made sure not to judge what they heard, but to appreciate every contribution. And they were astonished by the response: when divided into small groups by age and sex, community members were eager to share their points of view frankly and honestly. As word spread across town about the researchers’ interest in people’s views on the issue, more and more came forward and asked to be heard.
What the NGO facilitators learned in these discussions was that people fully understood the harmful effects of cutting, but were also keenly aware of the negative social implications – both for them and their daughters – of resisting this important tradition. The facilitated discussions – which were named ‘community consultations’ and became an essential step of the Generation Dialogue methodology – allowed women and men, parents, daughters and sons, to voice their personal dilemmas about the issue. In doing so, they realised that there were many others in their community who shared them.
The Generation Dialogue is born
At the end of this first community consultation exercise, several of the young women approached the NGO members and asked if they could not facilitate similar discussions between them and their mothers and grandmothers whom they saw as the bearers of the tradition. The NGOs recognised that this gave them a new and more profound entry point into community attitudes and practices. With German support, they developed a format that brought young and older women, and young and older men, together to listen to one another and to dialogue in a respectful and appreciative manner.
In 2002 and 2003 Dialogues were held in Conakry, Labé and Faranah on sexual morality, HIV/AIDS and female genital cutting. Exercises like the construction and presentation of a traditional and a modern life path, as shown in the video below, generated robust debates between older and younger women about topics such as the value of virginity at marriage, traditional rules of good behaviour (‘Fendani’), women’s willingness to suffer for the well-being of their children and husbands, the importance of education and professional training, violence against girls and women perpetrated by relatives and partners, and forced marriages.
The older and younger men discussed pre-marital and extra-marital sex, the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS, whether female genital cutting should be continued and with what degree of strictness, the lack of economic prospects for younger men, and the huge debts they accrue as a result of lavish wedding ceremonies.
Changing times, changing morals
In both the female and male dialogues a prominent theme which emerged was the perceived ‘double standard’ of sexual morality on the part of the older generation. Young men and women explained that the traditional values espoused by the older generation no longer reflect the realities of the modern world and are in any case rarely upheld in practice, including by older people themselves. They also expressed a desire for new forms of ‘moral education’ to prepare them for social and married life. Both generations recognised the need to listen more to one another and to work towards greater solidarity between the generations.
An evaluation conducted after the Dialogue concluded found that there was significantly more communication between parents and children about sexual morality, HIV/AIDS and female genital cutting in families where someone had participated in the Dialogue, compared to families where no one had participated. Furthermore, the participants’ families reported significantly better family relationships and significantly more reciprocity – active interest and listening by the old as well as by the young – compared to other families.