Grassroots vs. Treetops. Kristof and WuDunn begin the chapter with a vivid description of genital cutting: “approximately once every ten seconds, a girl somewhere in the world is pinned down. Her legs are pulled apart, and a local woman with no medical training pulls out a knife or razor blade and slices off some or all of the girl's genitals.” For decades, both Westerners and Africans have tried to intervene, but only recently have some succeeded. The struggle against genital cutting holds many lessons for the aid world at large to “move beyond slogans,” they put plainly.
The chapter opening intends to jar the reader into awareness of the violent reality of female genital cutting (FGC), in order to keep FCG from being simply an abstract idea. The authors stress that the long fight against FCG represents broader aid struggles, and by noting its failures the aid community can avoid major follies more generally.
Today, female genital cutting occurs mainly in Africa among Muslims, and has ancient roots, evidenced in female Egyptian mummies. An ancient Greek philosopher gave instructions on cutting the clitoris in order to discourage sexual pleasure and therefore promiscuity, which is still the impetus for genital cutting, the authors report. Cutting most commonly involves “snipping the clitoris or clitoral hood,” though there are varying degrees of extremity. Cutting instruments are rarely sterile and can lead to lifelong injuries, or even death. A crusade against what was called “female genital mutilation” (FGM) began in the 1970s, and was mostly unsuccessful and met with local resistance. The authors report that some girls even looked forward to it as a rite of passage.
The millennia-long history of female genital cutting may seem like a reason to argue that the practice is ineradicable. But, just as Kristof and WuDunn argued earlier, China saw the disappearance of foot-binding despite disbelief that it would ever go away. The same progress is possible with FGC, as long as the change is not a Western prescription, the authors suggest. It’s important to recognize that views of FGC vary in Africa, much the way views might vary on a controversial social practice in the U.S.—some girls looked forward to the rite of passage, while others in Africa disowned the practice.
Advocates eventually learned to use the less judgmental term “female genital cutting” (FGC) Most important, leadership of the moment transferred to local women like Edna Adan. Kristof and WuDunn draw the reader’s attention to Tostan, a West African group with perhaps the most success in decreasing FGC. Tostan was founded by Molly Melching, a white Midwesterner who visited Senegal in 1974 and effectively never left. After being entrenched in Senegalese culture and watching clinics be built by outsiders without local buy-in, Molly grew skeptical of aid groups. She saw firsthand that laws failed and aid groups floundered. Moreover, her own daughter, who was half-Senegalese, begged to be cut, jealous of her friends. In 1991, Molly founded Tostan, which dispatches local trainers into villages to teach village adults about the dangers of FGC. Tostan takes pains to avoid angering local men, and focuses on human rights rather than on women’s rights. Some feminists object to Tostan’s bending to misogynistic culture in Senegal, but Tostan remains committed to a positive, nonjudgmental ethic, informing women of FGC’s dangers while encouraging women to make their own decisions.
Tostan’s history involves a central question in the women’s emancipation movement: how much should activists bend to accommodate the misogynistic codes in order to gain traction that might, ultimately, help dismantle those codes? Consider the case of Tostan, in which teachers stopped discussing women’s rights—the group’s central mission—because men objected. This may make activists bristle, yet the ultimate gain is Tostan’s slow cultural acceptance in Senegalese villages. Even the term “female genital cutting” (as compared with “mutilation”) is seen by some as too mild, since the practice does mutilate the female body. But mutilation connotes a bad, even tortuous practice, whereas cutting is more neutral. On the part of activists like Molly, FGC is a term calculated to be more hospitable to conservative people in places like Senegal.
One day, influenced by Tostan, a group of thirty women declared they would not cut their daughters. But the apparent victory ended up a disaster—other villagers accused the women of betrayal and of accepting bribes from white people. Molly realized that, because villagers intermarry with people of other villages, the decision to stop FGC had to occur across multiple villages. The authors quote Molly as comparing Western perceptions of FGC to how Senegalese people might see orthodontic braces as cruel—Westerners wouldn’t appreciate being called cruel for trying to improve their children’s lives. Molly’s sensitivity to the villages’ cultural codes helped reduce FGC enormously.. As part of Molly’s commitment to local buy-in, Tostan is staffed entirely by Senegalese.
From the beginning, Tostan’s ethos stressed local buy-in, which seems inspired. Yet, even this smart tactic failed at first. A group of women’s consensus to stop FGC in their community didn’t unify the whole community, and in fact stirred conflict. Tostan’s ultimate success, however, attests to the power of adaptability in the aid world. Molly recognized that she hadn’t understood the villages’ marriage systems, and had to change Tostan to accommodate for these networks. Her comparison of FGC to orthodontic braces shows empathy for keepers of the African tradition—while she doesn’t equate braces with FGC, she does stress that accusing Senegalese people of cruelty for what they see as helping their daughters only serves to alienate them.
Tostan’s tactics are thought to be groundbreaking in the fight against FGC, and are emulated more and more by other groups in Africa. By investing in local buy-in and cultural sensitivity, Tostan has succeeded where UN conferences, laws, and billions of dollars have generally failed. Tostan, Kashf, CARE, Apne Ap, and other groups, all have in common local ownership and bottom-up approaches.
The authors summarize the key point that expensive conferences and abstract perspectives on human rights are far inferior to the approach of groups like Tostan, which listen to local people and engage on the ground.
Girls Helping Girls. While the “frontline in the grassroots war against the abuse of women” takes place in Africa and Asia, Jordana Confino fights from the U.S.. A charming, self-possessed young woman, Jordana grew up with a lot of privilege in a New York suburb. Her mother, Lisa Alter, introduced her at ten years old to topics of women’s oppression, which moved Jordana to start Girls Learn International in the eighth grade to advocate for girls’ education. Twenty chapters across the U.S. now exist, and though some members are just building resumes, some are deeply invested in fundraising for the classrooms to which their chapters are connected. While the authors admit than Girls Learn isn’t the most efficient aid group, they argue that it does cultivate commitment to women’s emancipation among American students. Jordana’s passionate drive, for instance, is evident when she speaks at an assembly at the Young Women’s Leadership School, declaring, “Girls’ rights are human rights!”
At other points, Kristof and WuDunn criticize some aid groups’ waste in their inefficient funding allocations. These criticisms remain, but they use Girls Learn International to illustrate the power in prioritizing women’s rights issues at a young age. Importantly, Jordana’s inspiration happened within her home, not after a life-changing trip to a Nigeria or India. Emulating Jordana’s path may be more plausible to some readers than gaining intimate familiarity with poverty.