Do Alternative Rites of Passage (ARP) approaches work?


7 March 2018

Guest Blog bySam Cook, Feed the Minds. 

Photo: Feed the Minds

Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) approaches – that use an alternative ritual to FGM to symbolise a girl’s transition to womanhood – sound great on the surface. But they are not always an effective way to end FGM.

This does not deny that ARP approaches can have a positive impact. In some of the 30 countries that practise FGM it has been shown to protect girls. This has been achieved by maintaining the celebration of the passage of a girl to womanhood, without the act of genital cutting. But is this an effective strategy for abandonment of FGM that can be applied in other communities? And who else needs to be involved to ensure long term change?

For anti-FGM programmes to truly “work”, we need alternatives, or at least supplements, to ARP. Approaches that focus on education - rather than just cultural substitution - and involve the whole community - rather than just girls -are more likely to lead to sustainable attitudinal and behavioural changes.

Two reasons why ARP approaches alone do not always work are 1) power and 2) context and culture.

Firstly, power imbalances are an enabling factor in every human rights violation in the world. FGM is no exception. The reasons why FGM is perpetrated varies from one region to another. But power underlies every reason. For example, gender inequalities contribute to misconceptions around FGM. The practice is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered acceptable sexual behaviour. According to the WHO, ‘FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist extramarital sexual acts’[i]. It goes without saying; FGM is a horrific abuse of power that reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes. It is almost always child abuse (committed against girls) and without exception a violation of a girl or woman’s health, security and physical integrity.

Local structures of power, including community leaders, religious leaders and the circumcisers themselves, will act to uphold the practice. This is because stakeholders, or power holders, benefit more often than not financially. Parents can even contribute as they may receive greater financial incentives when their daughters marry if they have been circumcised. Any programme aiming to bring about an end to FGM should start with an analysis of the power dynamics. Subsequent interventions should target where the power lies.

Secondly, context and culture play an important role. The reasons why many communities circumcise their girls and women are deeply rooted in traditional culture. The continuation of the practice is driven by a complex mix of social and economic benefits. The mix is specific to each context and passed down the generations. The myth of why FGM is part of a specific culture evolves over time to fit the agenda of those with the power to guide it (again, power is always underlying).

In practice, this means that ARP can act as a viable cultural substitute to FGM in one context, but only when the whole community recognises girls who go through ARP as having made the transition from girlhood to womanhood. In many contexts, this is near impossible to achieve. In contexts where ARP has been most successful, FGM has been an important part of community rituals. But in communities where FGM is a more private family affair, or not linked to the rite of passage, ARP is unlikely to offer a genuine alternative to FGM. In short, ARP cannot function as a “one-size-fits-all” solution to ending FGM and in isolation is often unable to effect long term change.

At Feed the Minds, we adopt a holistic approach to tackling FGM, which involves the whole community. In order to tackle the root causes of FGM and ensure community ownership of the change process, it is vital to involve all stakeholder groups. Yes, that means women and girls, but also men, boys, elders, teachers, parents , community leaders and, in countries where the act is illegal, but often not upheld, law enforcement.

We see education as the key to tackling FGM. So we have trained community and youth educators in Kuria, Kenya to lead and facilitate a wide range of workshops and forums in their communities, relating to FGM and girls’ rights. They are active members of their communities and therefore best placed to increase awareness of the harmcaused by FGM, and to involve othersin ending the practice.

Mainly, our educators run community, youth and parent forums to encourage dialogue about FGM and girls’ rights in a number of different formats. The forums form the backbone of the project by offering community members a platform to openly speak about FGM and to discourage those still practicing it.

As part of this approach we run a Girls’ Empowerment Programme. At these events girls can learn about their rights, FGM, discuss issues freely and build their confidence. Ending with a graduation ceremony, this increases self-esteem and inspires girls to stay in education. To some extent, our Girls’ Empowerment Programme performs a similar role to ARP. But, unless the rest of the community recognises the agency of girls, we know this is not enough.

In conclusion there is no quick fix to ending FGM. It requires time. Programmes must be adaptive to local needs and embedded in community networks, if they are to effect long-term change and bring an end to FGM once and for all.

Photo: Feed the Minds

Find out more on this and the work of Feed the Minds by clicking here.

[i] WHO http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/