by Jo Murphy, Writer and Activist
What do literacy and FGM have in common? One could eradicate the other.
This week International Literacy Day reminds us that education is one of the most fundamental ways in which we can build a sustainable future for all. It empowers individuals to bring about lasting change at a community, national and global level.
Being able to read and write gives an individual dignity. More than that, it frees them from the things that can strip them of this dignity. Such as exposure to harmful practices like FGM, the dangers of which illiteracy keeps them ignorant.
Not being able to read and write makes individuals vulnerable to attacks on their human rights, and puts them at an immediate disadvantage in life. More than 750 million people worldwide are impacted by illiteracy, which severely limits their access to education, healthcare and employment. Nearly 500 million of them are female.
And this is why three million women and girls are still at risk of beingcut every year. This is why – if 80% of women who have suffered FGM across Africa are illiterate – teaching mothers to read and write can prevent their daughters from suffering the same. It gives them the tools to overcome misinformation surrounding the procedure. It gives them the knowledge and confidence to say “no more”.
A mother’s reading skill has a huge influence on the future of her children and her community. It permits her to access information otherwise unavailable to her, and make better decisions about her family’s healthcare and education – as well as her own.
What’s more, literacy gives a woman a firmer footing within the communities where she has historically been deemed unequal. And yet, for many women, the impacts of FGM take them out of school before they even learn to read and write.
The procedure not only brings the risk of many physical complications, the psychological impacts can also be insurmountable. As a result, a girl misses out on her education entirely, meaning she remains ignorant of the ways she could prevent the same from happening to future generations.
But if a girl learns to read and write, she then has the skills she needs to find out about taboo subjects – like the dangers of FGM – as well as childbirth, menstruation and the way her body functions. Her self-esteem and confidence grow. She gains a sense of her right to a more fulfilling and healthy life.
An educated girl is therefore equipped to speak out against the dangers of FGM and request to remain in school. She has the skills to actively participate in the kind of dialogue that brings necessary change – on a community and national level. But, for this to really happen, we have to educate the boys and men too.
The whole community needs to know about the dangers of FGM in order to eradicate it. Say, for example, a woman suffers a difficult childbirth; the connection may not be made between the women’s experience as an adult and the irreversible damage done to her body as a child. Labour is difficult, after all.
Educating whole communities overrides beliefs that this is a safe or necessary practice, not least because this education benefits those carrying out the procedures. If they remain illiterate, they’re unable to gain employment elsewhere. But if they are literate, they’re no longer reliant upon the continuation of FGM for paid work.
Literacy empowers everyone to make informed choices about their personal and shared futures. And this isn’t limited to changing cultural attitudes towards FGM. It raises awareness of every individual’s right to a standard of healthcare, education and employment opportunity – as well as their freedom of choice.
Literacy is dignity and it is equality. It is the way in which an individual can live a prosperous life. It is how sustainable improvements are made in harmony with all members of the community – men and women alike. Educated communities can better contribute to ending poverty, strengthening economies, tackling climate change and faster recovery from conflict.
And this is why 28TM is working with NGOs that are engaging with communities to raise awareness not only of the dangers of FGM, but also of girls and boys dropping out of school. If mothers are aware, they will think twice about denying their children an education. This is why we start with the women.
If FGM is believed to define a girl’s gender, then education defines her as a human being. If cutting defines her transition from girlhood to womanhood, then literacy defines her transition from unequal to equal. Education not only helps women to help themselves, it helps the men in their lives too.
Communities need female role models who can inspire a shift in cultural thinking. In empowering women, we also empower men by liberating everyone from practices that cause so much pain for so many. We don’t just tell them to stop; we show them how and why. We show them what the future could look like without FGM, without illiteracy – then empower them to create it.