Social change without a backlash - tackling early marriage and genital cutting in Ethiopia

Kirrily Pells

Yesterday was the Day of the African Child, held every year to commemorate the 1976 massacre of black children and youth in Soweto, South Africa, who were protesting about the inferior quality of their education and demanded to be taught in their own language. The theme for this year’s observance was “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. While there is international consensus that female early marriage and genital cutting can cause physical, emotional and social damage to girls, the key question for policy is how to eliminate such practices without creating a backlash that endangers girls. Failure to understand the root causes of these practices undermine their effectiveness and may bring about resistance and unintended adverse consequences.

The Ethiopian government opposes female early marriage and genital cutting, designating them as Harmful Traditional Practices and proscribing them in law. The government has introduced legislation in the constitution and legal codes and promoted a wide range of preventative measures, largely comprising advocacy campaigns in the media and among local associations around the adverse health and social consequences in schools. In some areas, this has resulted in changes in values and practices, also supported by greater participation in school and greater economic opportunities for young people. However there is considerable resistance to reform even in areas that have experienced intensive advocacy endeavours. Peer pressure leads some girls to opt for genital cutting against the wishes of their parents. This resistance has caused disagreement within families, contestation of state policy and clandestine actions, such as elopements under the guise of abduction and clandestine cutting rituals, themselves a potential risk to the girls involved. This indicates that the practices are driven underground rather than disappear.

Persistence of the practices can be attributed to the strong vested interest in the productive and reproductive capacity of women, as expressed through the regulation of their sexual conduct and marriage by older generations. Early marriage and genital cutting are also often seen as protecting girls against the social stigma of pre-marital sex and not having been circumcised. The practices are seen to ensure girls’ social integration and their moral and social development, particularly in times of social change.

Positive ways forward

Young Lives research suggests a couple of positive ways forward – starting with listening to the perspectives of girls and their families on early marriage and genital cutting to develop a better understanding of the reasons for the continuation of the practices. A more effective and culturally appropriate policy approach requires a move away from focusing on specific practices and towards linking more with wider social processes, integrating strategies aimed at reducing their prevalence with other initiatives aimed at improving the health and socio-economic status of women and families more broadly.

Other measures include encouraging culturally appropriate and sensitive ways of celebrating rites of passage (at birth or adolescence) which promote cultural values without causing physical damage. This involves working at the community level, including with local and religious leaders, especially to clarify misconceptions about religious prerequisites for genital cutting. Changing cultural values is much easier through open dialogue about fears and anxieties concerning social processes of change, rather than through legislation. Other drivers for change include the promotion of education and employment opportunities for women and girls. There is a lower prevalence of female early marriage and genital cutting among girls with literate mothers and better economic prospects provide girls and their families with more options.