How long does it take to change cultural practice? Should social norms continue if they cause harm?


8 February 2011

As I set at FORWARD’s office in Chandelier Building, Scrubbs Lane, I recall being in Northern Pakistan this time last year. The 200 woollen hats knitted by my church for the new borns arrived this week – much needed in these winter days with no electricity. Although only performed in certain tribes in Pakistan, WHO states FGM increases the risk of child birth complications, Caesareans and causes 50% higher infant death rates. So can we change this practice?

In Gambia’s upper river region, 24 community representatives have just signed a public declaration abandoning FGM, which affected 90% of girls. TOSTAN’s ‘organised diffusion’ model supports girls/women, men, chiefs and Imams spreading the education messages on birth complications and health risks ‘people to people’ across neighbouring villages.

However, not everyone’s happy! Conteh, 55, states “I’ve never seen someone…die as a result. I think women are healthier”. Balajoh, 22, says “Males and females should be circumcised”. Both state “We should not question the past – we must do what tradition dictates. Who are these outsiders to raise their voice? They are misguided”.

TOSTAN takes an indirect approach discussing the issue of girls being pulled out of school for child marriage or health issues in child birth. TOSTAN’s co-ordinator, Tamba, feels changing attitudes to traditional practices that villages hold precious is challenging, yet change agents must not shy away from it. As I suggest in my recent dissertation, foot binding in China was once the social norm, but norms are human constructs that can be rethought if they cause people harm.

Gambia’s president Jammeh is not ready to pass a legal ban on FGM, stating “You have to go slowly…banning FGM now could create problems”. So, how long does it take to change cultural practices? As long as it takes! My view with FGM is it will take an uncut girl to become a mother (who doesn’t cut her daughter) and then a grandmother (who doesn’t become a circumciser). This could mean five generations of 15 years – or around 90 years. So, if I live a very long health long life I might just see it! Until then, I need lots of patience and grace to be a change agent standing against FGM.