How do you change a deep-rooted and harmful tradition like female circumcision?

Research from VU Amsterdam, in collaboration with Amref Flying Doctors, provides insights into the ideas about female circumcision among the Masai communities in Kenya and into which ways change is possible. Despite the fact that female circumcision can lead to serious complications and that it is a violation of human rights, it still occurs frequently. Worldwide, more than 200 million girls and women have been circumcised.

08-06-2018 | 10:30

Ernst Graamans, change management researcher at VU Amsterdam who is also working at TEN HAVE Change Management, conducted research within the Masai community. He studied the divergent and sometimes contradictory ways in which people themselves give shape and meaning to female circumcision and which pathways this offers to bring about change. Based on the results, Graamans has designed a framework with which Amref Flying Doctors can make their approach to female circumcision even more effective. The research and framework have been published in Culture, Health & Sexuality.

Starting points for change
For his research, Graamans interviewed 94 people, young and old, women and men, activists against female circumcision and guardians of traditional culture. He stayed in the nomadic villages and attended various rites of passage that are alternatives to female circumcision, which the communities developed with support from Amref Flying Doctors. The research provides insights into why a one-sided focus on change through regulation and information does not work and can vary for each context. “You need to know the discourse of your target group to be able to assess the impact of your intervention”, says Graamans. “From the conversations, I have found seven different positions that people take concerning female circumcision. I have put the accompanying discourses into a framework that can be used to develop interventions in the various communities, as well as for educational purposes on this subject at schools, universities and workshops.”

Successful approach and new opportunities
The framework ensures consistency and shows how Amref Flying Doctors is working on change and where it can make this change even more powerful. In the Masai community, female circumcision is traditionally an important part of the rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood. In the alternative rituals, the good elements within this tradition are retained and the harmful (female circumcision) is put up for discussion through information and dialogues. This approach should help prevent the Masai from interpreting the fight against female circumcision as an attack on their culture and identity and resisting it.

The Graamans framework also offers opportunities for Amref Flying Doctors to promote change through multiple fronts. An example of this is love and intimacy, a meaningful discourse for the Masai. Graamans: “Developing insights into problems in the area of love and intimacy that stem from the practice of female circumcision is an important starting point for change and offers new possibilities.”

Change is possible
The goal of Amref Flying Doctors is that by 2030, female circumcision will be a thing of the past in Africa. “It is an ambitious goal, given the complexity and persistence of this type of cultural practice. But if the current approach is scaled up in close collaboration with the communities themselves, it is certainly possible”, says Graamans.

Amref Flying Doctors
Amref Flying Doctors, internationally named Amref Health Africa, is the largest African health organisation that has been working with nomadic communities in Kenya and Tanzania since 2007 to prevent female circumcision.