Spurred by remorse, advocates seek change

Campaign: Some Egyptians oppose female genital cutting because they have witnessed its effects, or vividly recollect their own ordeals.

March 26, 2000|By Lauren Goodsmith

I RAN OUT into the street so that I would not hear my daughter screaming," said the Egyptian woman as she recalled the moment when her child underwent the trauma experienced by thousands of girls in her country every year. "I am 65 years old, and yet I have not forgotten," she added.

A father says of his young daughter, "She will no longer look me in the eyes. -- I did this out of love, and now we cannot speak."

Both of these parents, spurred by profound remorse, have become advocates against a custom they once followed without question. Along with like-minded individuals in communities throughout Upper Egypt, they are helping to persuade others to abandon the practice of female genital cutting . These men and women emerged as powerful advocates for change through an approach known as "Positive Deviance."

Initiated by the Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA), the Positive Deviance project seeks to promote change from within the community. First, through a process of inquiry, locally staffed teams identify individuals who "deviate" from the norm by opposing female genital cutting. Next, through interviews, the "positive deviants" -- or "positive models," as they are called in Egyptian Arabic -- share their personal experiences and explain the reasons for their decision. From these interviews, team members extract compelling messages that will shape local anti-female genital cutting activities.

At the project's outset, team members doubted that people would be willing even to discuss the subject of female genital cutting, much less identify themselves as opponents. In fact, team members discovered far more positive deviants than they thought existed. They include parents and young girls, teachers and health workers, local leaders and average villagers. Some are former excisors. They oppose female genital cutting because they have witnessed its effects on loved ones, or vividly recollect their own ordeals, or simply see it as a noxious custom whose time has passed. Most important, they are ready to share their convictions with others.

The Positive Deviance approach, originally used to improve child nutrition practices in Asia, is an innovation in Egypt. Most previous efforts to eradicate female genital cutting concentrated on the attitudes that support this deeply ingrained practice. The Positive Deviance method reverses this perspective, looking instead at the exceptions to the rule. By asking the question "Why have some families not excised their daughters?" the Positive Deviance approach finds solutions among community members. The initiative is an empowering one, says CEDPA staff member Shahira Aly. "Usually, when people don't excise their daughters, they hide it," she explains, but the Positive Deviance project fosters self-confidence.

Another important aspect of the project is that positive deviants are not "outsiders" militating against tradition, but well-known individuals whose words have credibility among their peers.

The positive deviants are taking part in local awareness-raising activities and home visits, helping their neighbors understand the detrimental effects of female genital cutting. The project will expand during the coming year to other communities, further amplifying the voices of change.

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