How to… challenge cultural norms

How to… challenge cultural norms

It is estimated that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone the ritual of female genital mutilation (FGM), and current trends indicate that each year, approximately three million girls under the age of 15 are added to these statistics.

By Ann-Marie Wilson, a mission partner who founded the Anti-FGM charity 28 Too Many

Some facts: FGM is a traditional cultural practice involving the cutting or removal of the external female genitals. It results in pain and emotional and physical health problems, often life-long. Most FGM takes place in 28 African countries and in some communities in the Middle East and Asia. As a result of immigration and refugee movements, FGM can also be found in other countries including most European countries, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Since 2004 I have worked for eight overseas relief, rehabilitation or development agencies in 18 countries. In 2005, working in West Darfur with Medair, I met a girl who had had FGM at the age of five, who was then raped and orphaned at 10 during a military attack on her village, and gave birth to a child conceived from the rape. I cried out to God to ask who would look after girls like her. In response I heard him say, “You will.” That was all I needed!

I came home, told my church, closed my business and started to undertake research and training into what was needed in the FGM sector, so as not to duplicate existing work. I founded 28 Too Many in 2010. I realised that there was a lack of support and practical information for those trying to end FGM, so we provide the knowledge, tools, best practice models and support networks to enable anti-FGM campaigners and organisations working with communities to bring about sustainable change.

Over the past few decades, there has been enormous momentum within the international development community towards ending FGM. This has translated into a large number of laws, policies, campaigns and programmes at international, national and local levels, yet results remain mixed. While there is evidence that the most extreme types of FGM are slowly declining in prevalence, the overall rate of decline does not always reflect the huge amounts of money, time and energy invested.


It is often felt by many FGM-practising communities that local priorities are ignored by visiting development “experts” and that their cultures and traditions are framed as problems to be solved. At the same time, for women and girls who are at risk or have experienced FGM and wish to end the practice, often the only perceived solution is to fight against their loved ones and risk losing their place in the community.

In contrast, 28 Too Many believes that the most effective approach to reducing FGM lies in culturally sensitive, community-based programmes encouraging changes to social norms.

What are social norms?

Social norms flow from our beliefs about what others do and about what others think we should do. There is an increasing consensus that FGM is often a social norm – the practice continues because “everyone does it”, or people believe that everyone does it. Individuals practise it because they have never questioned behaving otherwise, they receive social benefits from conforming to the norm or they fear social sanctions from others for deviating from the norm.

The culture of FGM-practising communities

The relevance of culture to FGM is always challenging in our work. We must be aware that in most FGM-practising contexts there are strong collectivist values which encourage conformity to social norms, including those that support FGM.

In many African societies, the role of elders is also key. They transmit knowledge to the younger generation, play a key leadership role and ensure the social cohesion and survival of their family and community. The presence and role of elders is particularly felt when people live in extended family settings with several generations living close together.

Another characteristic we must appreciate in FGM-practising societies is gender specificity in the activities of different family members. Here, the roles of men and women are generally quite distinct. Cultural norms dictate which activities males carry out and which ones are reserved for females. So, a key starting point for working with communities on FGM, and women’s and children’s health generally, is to understand how they are organised with respect to gendered roles.

How can we change social norms?

At 28 Too Many we recognise that many of the popular FGM-abandonment strategies have limited effectiveness unless they are accompanied by community-wide processes of dialogue and consensus-building.

While many strategies try to bring about changes in individual behaviour, this fails to take into account the influence of social structures and cultural values on people’s beliefs and actions, especially in contexts with collectivist values. Evidence shows that, rather than focusing on individual behaviour change, it is more effective for programmes to focus on promoting changes in social norms, which in turn will influence individual behaviour.

To successfully shift social norms and end FGM we first need to identify the characteristics of FGM: which practising communities to focus on, why they practise FGM, at what age girls are cut and what type of FGM is performed. We even need to consider what FGM is called in that community. (There are many different terms – we use the local term when working in a community and FGM when working internationally.)

We need to understand the decision-making processes (who decides that a girl will be cut, and when?) and the power dynamics. Recognising who exercises authority and power within a community, and whether or not that authority supports the desired change, is essential.

In our work on social norms and FGM we always try to identify the influencers and decision makers: these are most commonly the religious or traditional leaders, elders (such as grandmothers and chiefs) or parents. It is then essential to catalyse community dialogue and collaborative problem-solving with these decision-makers and influencers and support those stakeholders who have the most cultural authority to shape, and ultimately end, the practice of FGM in their community.