DAKAR, Senegal (AP) – Kadiatou Balde grew up in a Senegalese village with the tradition of female genital mutilation. She has never had a choice, but now, as an elder in the community, she is helping to banish practice, one conversation at a time.
She started talking about the taboo issue when the Grandparents Project came to her village.
"We grandmothers made a commitment to no longer extirpate our little girls," she said. "We met and talked to the village chief and the parents of the children. We discussed with them the consequences of female genital mutilation and together we agreed to denounce anyone who practiced. "
More than 200 million girls and women living today have experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to the World Health Organization.
Wednesday is International Zero Tolerance Day for Female Genital Mutilation, and many organizations, led by the United Nations, are reaffirming their commitment to end what has been called a human rights violation.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is expected to call for greater global action to end the practice.
Female circumcision can lead to long-term physical, psychological and social consequences, according to the UN Children's Agency, UNICEF, which calls it "a violation of medical ethics."
The procedure varies. It involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia or other injury to the female genitalia for non-medical reasons, according to the WHO.
FGM can affect intercourse and lead to problems with childbirth. In some cases, HIV is transmitted through the tools used, and excessive bleeding or poorly done procedures can lead to death.
In Senegal, where the practice is illegal, the FGM rate has dropped to around 26%, according to Amnesty International.
In neighboring Mali, the rate is above 91%, and in Guinea, 96%, according to 28 Too Many, a London organization dedicated to ending the practice. Somalia and Djibouti in the Horn of Africa have the highest rates in the world.
Some women advocate FGM, believing that it benefits cleanliness and hygiene, helps in prospects for marriage, preserves virginity and is a religious requirement, according to Many Many.
Multiple efforts around the world are working to unmask these beliefs with education and dialogue. And yet some resistance remains. Although illegal in many countries, FGM is sometimes performed on infants to reduce the risk of being caught.
UNICEF urged governments to come up with new policies and legislation against practice. It also states that religious leaders must overturn the myths that FGM is based on religion.
Some Muslim leaders who participated in the Project Grandmother, based in Senegal, expressed support.
"I was convinced that it was not a recommendation of Islam, much less a prophetic tradition," said Lambatara's imam in the south. He supported the decision of the local grandmothers to oppose the practice.
The Grandmother Project uses a multi-generational approach that also involves village chiefs and men.
"It's so obvious to us that it's the grandmothers who are the people behind FGM. Given their experience, they perpetuate it because that's what they know, "said program director Judi Aubel. "What our work has shown is that they have the authority to change that."
The program began in 2008 and spread to 57 villages in Senegal.
Since grandmothers are taught about the negative effects of FGM, they have dialogues on the subject with other generations in their villages.
"On an individual level, some have suffered, some not so much, some have died, but it has been a taboo to discuss this," Aubel said about women and their experiences over the years.
The hope is to expand the program to other countries, while Amnesty International said it plans to seek a similar approach in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone, where FGM rates are 76% and 88 respectively.
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