Sunday, 19 January 2014

Two more weeks to go

Time is flying, in two weeks I will fly back to the Netherlands! In this blog post I will reflect on my work of the past 3,5 months here in Africa. 

The topic of my PhD research is Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), a practice that involves the partially or totally removing the external female genitalia or otherwise injuring the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM/C. The international community recognizes FGM/C as a form of Violence Against Women and a violation of the human rights of girls and women. The majority of African countries have committed themselves to protecting the rights of women and girls by ratifying a number of international and regional treaties. Despite global efforts to promote abandonment of the practice, FGM/C remains widespread. 

Aim of my case study in Senegal

Taking into account the above, I asked myself the following questions: What is the impact of the international human rights framework? Do states comply with this framework? If so, why and how? And if not, why not? Can human rights possibly make an end to the highly entrenched and revered custom FGM/C that has existed for nearly two thousand years? The aim of my field study was to find answers to these questions.

Why Senegal?

I chose Senegal as a case study mainly because of the FGM/C prevalence (26%), type of FGM/C performed, religion (94% Muslim), degree of democracy and presence of civil society. On paper, everything looks very promising. Senegal signed and ratified all relevant human rights treaties, since 1999 there is a law that criminalizes FGM/C, there are two National Action Plans, there is a strong civil society and the famous NGO Tostan is advocating for change through their human rights education programmes. However, the law is not enforced and there have been only a few court cases. There is only a slow decline in prevalence of FGM/C in Senegal. How can that be explained?

The map of Senegal

Pilot study

I travelled to Senegal in May 2013 for two weeks for a pilot study. When I arrived in Dakar, I did not know anybody. Via one of my supervisors I met Bijou, a lady who later became my translator and friend. During my pilot study, I stayed in her house where she lived with her mother. 

The family I stayed with in May 2013
I used these two weeks to find out which actors work in the field of FGM/C in Senegal and to introduce my research to them. I also tested my questionnaire. I found out that people were very open and willing to talk about the subject, which was so nice! The mother of Bijou worked at the Family Ministry, which is responsible for the policies regarding FGM/C. During my pilot study, I worked there a couple of days, which provided me already with very interesting insights. 

Ministry of the Family
Semi-structured interviews

After my pilot study, I returned home to the Netherlands to prepare my field work. At the end of September I returned to Dakar for four months. My aim was to conduct semi-structured interviews with experts regarding FGM/C at the government level, international organizations and civil society organizations. During the interviews, I asked questions about the ratifications of treaties, the national law against FGM/C, the court cases, the National Action Plans, other policies and strategies, data collection and research, the role of the government, the role of the UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme, the role of civil society organizations, support services, trainings for professionals, etc. My aim was to conduct 50 interviews in four months, and last Friday I conducted number 47! My goal comes into sight!! 

The power of cultural, social and religious norms

During my interviews, the people here provide me with interesting insights that make me really understand the underlying complexities regarding FGM/C. I remember that when I wrote my PhD research proposal, I found it incredible that a mother could do this to an innocent young girl, to her own daughter. I was wondering how it could be that in the 20th century such practices still occurred. Now I understand that the mothers really love their daughters. They want the best possible life for them and with the cultural, social and religious norms established in their community, they feel that FGM/C is the only option.

Preliminary results

The pieces of the puzzle of compliance are now starting to fall into place. During my internship at the Family Ministry – responsible for the implementation of the human rights framework regarding FGM/C – I found out that this Ministry does not really have the capacities to properly implement the human rights framework. There is a lack of human, financial and material resources. In addition, the role of religious and community leaders should not be underestimated at the national and community level. Another interesting finding is that it is important to have a law, but not for punishing purposes. According to the majority of the people I interviewed, the focus should be on sensitization of the communities, rather than punishment. Because as long as the people do not understand why FGM/C is a criminal offence, they would rather choose to go to jail and live up to their social, cultural and religious norms.

Conference 27th of January

In the remaining two weeks I will conduct more interviews and I am also organizing a conference about FGM/C in Dakar. It will take place at the Residence of the Netherlands Embassy. During the conference, I will share my research results with the people I interviewed and others working in the field of human rights and FGM/C. I already have many applications, which is so nice!! Last week it was great to open my e-mail box and to have a look at the e-mails I received. :-) I received e-mails stating for example: "Toutes mes fĂ©licitations pour cet excellent travail" and "Your list of persons interviewed is impressive".  

Invitation for the conference
I would not have been able to really understand how complicated the issue of FGM/C is, without spending these months in Senegal. I enjoyed every minute of my research and I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to be here. I did everything I wanted to do, perhaps even more. I can't wait to analyze my data and start writing my chapter. I am very thankful for the grants of McKinsey & Company and the Alumni Fund of TLS with which I am able to finance my case study. Without them it would not be possible!

Apart from working hard for my research, I also take time to relax and enjoy my time Senegal. The past two weeks were in that regard extraordinary because I had two amazing friends who came from the Netherlands to visit me. We had a real good time together! In between the interviews we spend as much time as possible together. Below a few pictures of their visit. :-)

Finally, drinking a cappuccino together again! 
Visiting Lac Rose
Waiting for the boat to Ile de Ngor :-)
Ile de Ngor
Friday night: Celebrating the weekend!
Enjoying the sun at Lac Rose
Little walk at Lac Rose 
Playing football with the kids at Ngor
It is crazy to realize that I came here in May and I did not know anybody. Now, I feel sad to say goodbye to so many beautiful and interesting people. The Netherlands Embassy offered me a place to work for two days a week and I will miss my colleagues (especially the lunches!) there. I will miss the climate (still 27 degrees!), I will miss the Senegalese tea, the nice guy at the boutique at the corner of my street where I buy a pain every morning, the beautiful beaches, my favourite Island Ile de Ngor, the crazy taxi rides and the Senegalese teranga

But... I have two more weeks and I will enjoy every minute! :-)

Kind regards from Dakar,

Annemarie Middelburg

PhD Researcher at INTERVICT, Tilburg University

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