Every year, over 3 million girls undergo female genital mutilation in West Africa.
At Rosenkranz Hall Tuesday morning, Dr. Gerry Mackie, political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, spoke to an audience of about five students and professors on how to effectively eradicate the traditional practice of female genital cutting in West Africa by using a political strategy called “common approach.” While assistant professor of political science Helene Landemore, who organized the event, said the turnout was not as high as she had hoped, students who did attend said they enjoyed the chance to see the theory of politics in action.
Mackie has worked with the West African nongovernmental organization Tostan in Senegal since 1998, and UNICEF since 2004, he said. As a graduate student, Mackie and his team set up two-hour-long classes of around 20 adults and teenagers that were intended to aid the development of small village communities in rural Senegal. In the first year, participants learned, analyzed and debated democracy, human rights and values while in the second year they received information about body health, hygiene, education and literacy.
A facilitator, who was voluntarily provided room and board by the villages, also organized activities to nourish the idea of building a better community. One of these tasks consisted of drawing circles to represent family, community, nation, continent and world, and asking community members how these groups interact, Mackie said.
“[Their vision] goes from ‘I want a better community’ to ‘We want a better community’” Mackie said.
Participants addressed taboo topics, such as female genital cutting, only after these discussion sessions had occurred, Mackie said. But the topic is a hard one to broach as often many of the women who attend the meetings have undergone genital cutting, he said.
“[At first] they all are silent,” Mackie said. “But when asked if they wish for the topic to be removed, they all oppose.”
Historically, genital cutting was used by ancient African emperors to control their wives, Mackie said. Over time though, the practice became a symbol of chastity, practiced even by those who opposed it, radically turning into “a disease of civilization,” Mackie said.
Through the open discussions, community members are persuaded to change their vision of female genital cutting, Mackie said, and once one village changes its customs, facilitators spread the word to other villages.
“It works this way: Change the social norms and then get everyone else to change,” Mackie said. “But you can only make a change if everyone else makes the change at the same time.”
More than 3,500 communities in Senegal, Egypt and Ethiopia have publicly declared the abandonment of female genital cutting. The method is so effective that five years later, research by the United Nations has shown that female genital cutting has almost disappeared in these communities.
Although few people attended the event, audience members said they enjoyed the political aspect of the talk.
“It gave a good sense of the course of deliberate democracy,” Landemore said. “I just wish more people had attended, but people are busy and it’s snowing.”
Political science major David Chan ’12 said he gained a deeper understanding of the application of politics in the field.
Mackie will be delivering another discussion panel on “Midwiving Political Deliberation” this afternoon in Rosenkranz Hall.