IIt took courage for Ayodeji Bella to raise the subject of female genital mutilation in her rural community in southern Nigeria. She knew local chiefs were key to challenging beliefs around the practice, but when Bella, who was cut at age five, raised the issue with an elder in her village, she was reprimanded.
“I was young and single and they didn’t take me seriously.”
Four years later, tribal leaders contact Bella directly for advice on how to eradicate FGM.
One of 1,000 grassroots activists in 10 African countries supported by the Global Media Campaign (GMC), Bella now hosts discussions on TV channels. “After I started appearing on TV, they couldn’t shut me up,” she says. “They must have listened and now the tribal leaders are contacting me and saying ‘let’s talk about FGM’.”
FGM has been virtually eliminated in three years in a community where she works.
Engaging with local media is the most effective way to change mindsets, according to Maggie O’Kane, former Guardian journalist and co-founder of GMC.
“We pioneered this new activist model and now, because we have the data to prove it works, we have big organizations like UNFPA and Plan [International] support her. »
Since 2016, GMC has raised $6.4m (£4.8m) – funneling it directly to small local groups.
“I really think if we give these frontline women more money, we can end FGM by 2030. They don’t waste a penny,” O’Kane says.
Eleven independent impact surveys in countries like Sierra Leone and Nigeria have shown the success of small grants – typically between $300 and $500.
Three years of surveys in Kenya’s Tana River region showed that support for the most serious type 3 FGM fell from 89% to 5%.
In Mali, funding supported 193 local and national media campaigns, accumulating 468 hours of airtime reaching 86 million people. Subsequently, an independent study of 60 Decibels in 2021 recorded an 8% drop in support for FGM over the previous six months.
O’Kane said: “18 months ago Mali’s TV chief wouldn’t even allow FGM to be mentioned on the air, but now the negative impact of girls’ cutting is being shown. during prime-time television commercials reaching 5 million people a night – and the rates of the cuts are falling.
The World Bank has now given $50,000 to continue the progress.
“Before, there was this idea that it was possible to have a single pan-African policy to combat FGM,” says O’Kane. “But the factors that motivate female circumcision vary. In Sierra Leone you have the Bondo secret societies run by women, whereas in Somalia it’s all about religion, and in Nigeria it’s the tribal chiefs who hold the power.
O’Kane says: “Our militants use small radios and televisions cheap, they barter with their contacts. We have this whole unofficial network adept at negotiating airtime.
The WhatsApp messaging platform is at the heart of activist networks, connecting activists, who help each other and make sure the money is accounted for. “For this model to work, the accounts have to be spotless,” says O’Kane.
Bella is from Wanikin village in Osun, a state that has the highest rates of FGM in Nigeria.
She says, “Often we see funds from big NGOs stop in Abuja or Lagos.” Smaller grants have supported work aimed at challenging deeply held beliefs in harder-to-reach communities.
“For some people where I live, cutting is a craft that is passed down from generation to generation. They want to protect their father’s legacy by continuing the practice, so our job is to challenge that belief system.
Ifrah Ahmed has used grants for radio projects in Somalia.
The founder of the Ifrah Foundation worked in camps for people displaced by hunger and war after hearing of women who died in childbirth due to complications from FGM. Ahmed hands out $10 radios and says she’s already noticed a change in attitude.
“Pregnant women who have undergone type 3 FGM are dying because of the way they were cut. In some cases we hear that the mother and the baby die because the mother will push for several days, but the baby is stuck.
“Now we use the airwaves to spread the word – often through interviews with doctors and midwives – to convince women who are having difficulty in labor to go to hospital.”
The speed and effectiveness of local responses have convinced major donors that they can safely give money locally.
In January 2020, it was estimated that it would cost $2.4 billion to end FGM by 2030 in 31 countries.
Mireille Tushiminina, coordinator of a joint UN Population Fund and UN Children’s Fund program on ending FGM, says direct funding to activists is now key to achieving the goal of United Nations to end FGM by 2030.
“We have just completed phase three of our program and the priority for our fourth phase will be to work with the grassroots feminist movement and bring more young people on board,” she says.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves to financing national and regional offices. We are also looking for innovative funding streams that will reach those at the local level. »
This month, the joint program organized an international youth summit.
“Young people bring a lot of innovation. More important are those who are not afraid to disrupt the system – personally, I see conflict as an opportunity for social change,” says Tushiminina. “Our round tables give us the opportunity to think differently about the approach.
The anti-FGM campaign has been significantly affected by the poverty caused by the pandemic. It is estimated that 2 million more girls over the next decade will be subjected to the practice than before Covid.
In Kenya, for example, many families supplement their income with money earned by relatives working in hotels or as cleaners.
When tourism ceased and poverty set in, families were left with few options. O’Kane says: “An activist told me: ‘Everyone is poor and desperate – all they have are their daughters.’ You can get eight cows for one girl. But if you want to get a dowry, then the girls have to be circumcised.
But Covid has brought opportunities. “During the lockdown in Guinea, we saw motorcycle taxi drivers becoming the eyes and ears of the community,” says Tushiminina. “Due to the increase in gender-based violence, groups of men have mobilized to speak out against harmful practices, including FGM.
“The campaign has expanded to 500 taxi drivers engaged in spreading anti-FGM messages. According to our country office in Guinea, the initiative has the potential to reach 700,000 people. It has been so inspiring to watch these young men join the fight.
But those who know communities where FGC is prevalent say ending FGM by 2030 is a tall order. “We need to double our systems. We need more funds and we need more people working on the ground,” says Bella.
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