Success Stories

The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women

The Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW)

Context

Across the Asia Pacific region, as in other parts of the world, patriarchal and fundamentalist religious views routinely limit women’s exercise of their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and often sanction violence against women.i Asia has the world’s largest population, and the highest number of unsafe abortions – about 9.2 million each year. Nearly half of the world’s unsafe abortions take place in Asia; almost one-third of abortions are carried out in South Asia alone.ii Taboos and lack of knowledge about abortion laws – even among service providers – continue to be an issue in Nepal, Pakistan, and India.

Organizational Background

An innovative leader in the field of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Asia since its inception in 1993, the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Center for Women (ARROW) in Malaysia was founded to meet the demand for practical information and data on gender sensitization, reproductive health and rights, and violence against women. The group’s original vision was to create a resource center that would enable women to better define and control their lives. Since then, the organization has quickly expanded to include the monitoring of key international commitments related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), evidence- based advocacy, movement building through partnerships, and organizational capacity-building in its list of activities. It is precisely these changes that Maria Melinda Ando, Program Officer and Managing Editor of ARROW’s peer-reviewed bulletin, ARROWs for Change, says have enabled ARROW to remain relevant and move with the times.

ARROW’s holistic, far-reaching information and advocacy programs have enabled it to make a big impact on society, reaching stakeholders advancing SRHR and women’s health in more than 120 countries worldwide. The organization’s extensive research coverage is easily indicated by its completion of 14 national research projects, three thematic papers, and 10 national-level policy briefs to date, in conjunction with 22 partners. Additionally, ARROW’s focus on the intersection of SRHR with other development issues, such as poverty, food security, climate change, migration, and religious fundamentalism, ensures that the information and data it collects is comprehensive and addresses all areas of women’s issues and human rights.

Since 1997, the Global Fund for Women has invested $139,573 through 12 grants in support of ARROW’s work to advance health and sexual and reproductive rights. Given the challenge of religious fundamentalism and other barriers to women’s rights throughout the region, ARROW’s staff indicates that the group’s relationship with the Global Fund for Women has been particularly helpful in providing it with the travel grants needed to participate in key regional and global conferences. This has been instrumental in enabling ARROW to secure the needed space to hold public discourses on key issues, for which they cannot secure other funding.

Program Methodologies

Currently, ARROW bases its programmatic model on three key strategies: monitoring and research for evidence-based advocacy; Strategic information and communications for change; and Strengthening partnerships for advocacy.

All three strategies are key to ensuring that regional and global women advocates and organizations have access to the relevant information they need to make key decisions concerning women’s SRHR, and are also part of a global movement for systematic change.

The first of ARROW’s core strategies – monitoring and research for evidence-based advocacy – is used to ensure that international bodies and national governments are held accountable for their commitments to advancing women’s SRHR in the Global South. Utilizing this strategy, ARROW carefully charts the regional and national progress on these commitments made at global meetings – including the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action (ICPD PoA), the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women Platform of Action (BPfA), and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). At these conferences, the organization offers its unique gender, rights-based, and Southern perspective on the monitoring frameworks, indicators, and data commonly used by United Nations agencies, donors, and SRHR non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and suggests alternative frameworks as a result.

A team of highly experienced volunteer lawyers undertakes much of the Federation’s critical legal work on behalf of the Polish women. The Federation considers the creation of a country-wide network of 56 lawyers to be one of its key achievements. It is also a great example of the organization’s collaborative approach. The network consists of lawyers in various parts of the country who provide free counseling services and legal representation in courts. At the same time, the network acts as a consultative body to the Federation, assisting with the preparation of legal opinions and statements. The lawyers provided representation to plaintiffs in several landmark cases brought by the Federation to Polish and international courts. In one such recent example, in the R.R. v. Poland case, the European Court of Human Rights for the first time in Europe’s reproductive rights history, ruled in 2011 that denying a pregnant woman diagnostic services and keeping her uninformed about the health of her fetus was a violation of her human rights.

ARROW is the only organization that consistently monitored the five-year (1999), 10-year (2004), and 15-year (2009) implementation of ICPD implementation in the region. The +15 monitoring project covered 12 Asian countries and was conducted in collaboration with 22 national level, women’s health and rights NGOs, individual researchers, and activists. It resulted in the publication, Reclaiming and Redefining Rights ICPD+15 Status of Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in Asia, which provides regional analysis of the trends and actions that need to be in place for the full realization of SRHR in the region. The project also produced the Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Database of Indicators (http://www.srhrdatabase.org/). Since then, several groups have used ARROW’s national level ICPD+15 research findings to further their national advocacies. These advocacy efforts have consisted of: repealing policy directives (such as in the campaign for the repeal of EO 003 in Manila, Philippines, which eliminated government funding for contraception); pushing for amendments to existing laws and policies (Indonesia’s health bill amending the abortion law; Nepal’s policy on providing free surgery for uterine prolapse); providing evidence to support the passage of pending bills (Philippines’s RH bill); contributing to the shaping of policy directives (Malaysian Strategic Population Plan; Vietnam’s RH Strategy Plan 2011-2020); and fully implementing existing laws (Malaysia).

The second of ARROW’s key strategies – and the one that lies at the core of its ability to monitor international commitments so accurately and faithfully – is its strategy dedicated to obtaining information and communications for change. Nicknamed “InfoCom” for brevity, this methodology consists of the strategic collection, creation, distillation, and dissemination of regional information to SRHR organizations, advocates, and researchers based in the region and globally. This information is then used to conduct research, organize advocacy activities, prioritize and set agendas, and improve SRHR policy and program implementation. For example, ARROW’s SRHR Knowledge Management Sharing Center, “ASK-us!” is one of the few remaining women’s health and SRHR-dedicated resource centers in the region that maintains a comprehensive, up-to-date collection on women’s health. ASK-us! partners with Information Management Partnerships (IMP) to facilitate cross-organization and country sharing of information that is often inaccessible because it is only available within certain countries or local languages. ASK-us! ensures that this information is shared online and in face-to-face interactions at meetings convened by ARROW and ASK-us!. Due to increase demand for real-time updates on activities and information, and to capture critical program lessons to generate ‘experiential knowledge’, ASK-us! has evolved from sharing of information into a ‘knowledge management’ role. Recently, ASK-us! put together a knowledge management strategy paper and experimented within its “Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership” (WHRAP) Southeast Asia project, with partners in seven countries by establishing a blog site at to exchange information. Women’s organizations throughout the region have utilized this resource to strengthen their advocacy efforts and shift the public discourse around SRHR.

While other NGOs also focus on data collection and dissemination to support women’s movements, ARROW is unique in its data collection methodology and utilization of technology to circulate its research. It maintains an impressive online and social media presence, with a personal website, blog, Facebook page, online knowledge sharing center, and online marketing strategy. The group also maintains a database of SRHR indicators on its website, including country-specific data on abortion, contraception, maternal mortality, rape, gender-based violence, life expectancy, and related topics. This diversity displays the group’s ability to adapt to changing trends in communication patterns.

Furthermore, ARROW’s methodological approach to research and data collection involves the active participation of the women’s groups that it benefits. This participatory methodology ensures that the collected information is relevant to the demands of beneficiaries, and enables the group to maintain an intimate connection with the women’s movement. ARROW was among the first organizations to address the gap between policies concerning women’s rights and the actual inclusion of the female perspective in making these policies. It is a cyclical process that has contributed greatly to the organization’s success. They link their research seamlessly with the NGO and civil society sector, which is unprecedented in comparison to other research and data collection centers in the region. They stand out in their ability to gather data from civil society and present it to government authorities to garner change.

ARROW’s program model ties its research to its own advocacy at national, regional, and global venues in collaboration with its partners. The group’s third key strategy – strengthen partnerships for advocacy – has led it to create the “Women’s Health and Rights Advocacy Partnership” (WHRAP) program to bring together women and youth-led NGOs committed to strengthening civil society capacity to effectively advocate for marginalized women and young people’s SRHR. Currently, ARROW works directly with more than 30 national partners in at least 15 countries across the Asia Pacific region, as well as with regional organizations in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. “Identifying the gap between government commitments to international laws and policies with actual realities on the ground is the first step in the WHRAP strategy,” says Ando. Her description of the process of change harkens to that of a ripple effect, in which community-based organizations (CBOs), with ARROW’s training and support, first work with target beneficiaries to assess the quality of its services. This analysis then is used to mobilize demand for improvements in services for women at the state, national, and international levels.

WHRAP South Asia regional partnership demonstrates this work with national and regional groups to demand government accountability highlighting a ‘Rights-Based Continuum Quality of Care for Women’s Reproductive Health.’ WHRAP South Asia recently held an ‘Advocacy Allies Meeting’ in March 2012 in Dhaka, Bangladesh to raise the visibility of WHRAP South Asia by sharing its regional work and efforts in Bangladesh, and to receive support from participants and partners on its advocacy issues. The meeting gathered 41 people representing WHRAP South Asia’s national and regional partners, Government of Bangladesh representatives (two MPs and institutes), women’s movements, multilaterals, research institutes, and service providers. It was crucial in gaining support on a broader level and in calling for all governments in the region to audit all maternal deaths, implement safe abortion programs, and highlight the critical role of traditional birth attendants in improving maternal health. At the conclusion of the meeting, WHRAP South Asia reported, “The MPs also said that they benefited from these discussions, as it helped them to rethink issues, and aid them when policies are being drawn up.”

The upcoming Beijing Platform for Action, ICPD+20 (International Conference on Population and Development), and post-MDGs reviews are critical opportunities for civil society to ensure that SRHR are integrated into key international development frameworks when the MDGs expire. ARROW’s strategic partnerships with the UN and bilateral agencies connect various stakeholders at different levels and provide a space for and enable the direct inclusion of voices from the global South and civil society within these reviews. In May 2012, ARROW organized two regional convenings in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with support from GIZ (German bilateral) and UNFPA to partner with Asia and Pacific NGOs to revitalize SRHR in connection with sustainable development and to strategize for the lead-up to the ICPD+20 and post-MDGs reviews. These convenings were comprised of 121 advocates, activists, and NGO representatives from across 27 countries, including many of the Global Fund for Women’s past and current grantees, (CHETNA India, FWRM, Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre, Beyond Beijing Committee), as well as other groups. The meeting resulted in the “Kuala Lumpur Call to Action” outcome document calling for the “inclusion and prioritization of women and young people’s SRHR in new development frameworks that take stock of current consensus documents and move beyond them to fully achieve our human rights.” This ‘call to action’ document provides a guideline for countries in each sub-region to develop sub- regional plans of action to be included in regional plans of action as part of the UN review process.

The group has also partnered with Catholics for Choice to convene the Global Advocacy Planning Meeting on Religious Fundamentalisms in Indonesia last October. The meeting consisted of roughly 25 participants from India, Indonesia, Lebanon, Malaysia, Philippines, Pakistan, the United States, and the United Kingdom. During this time, panelists discussed how religious extremist groups were affecting the SRHR movement, and developed strategies to counter the efforts of these groups. As a result of the meeting, ARROW and Catholics for Choice initiated the Global Interfaith and Secular Alliance (GISA) to promote international cooperation in dealing with religious extremist opposition in the SRHR sector.

Along with engaging in cooperative problem solving on an international level, ARROW also conducts internal evaluations with the goal of constantly improving its organizational strategies. These evaluations are conducted on all of its organized activities, which may range from planning meetings to international conferences, and include mid-term and final evaluations. ARROW’s final annual report is the published product of its efforts to continuously improve itself on many fronts: strategically, technologically, and organizationally.

Learning

ARROW connects and bridges international stakeholders with country level and global South voices to engage with each other in a collaborative and meaningful way. ARROW’s relationships with key international partners (UN, bilaterals, multilaterals, INGOs, local civil society, and women’s groups); credible reputation; and convening power provide a link between high-level international stakeholders and local community groups who otherwise would not have the access to such platforms and high-level stakeholders. ARROW partners with stakeholders at different levels to identify strategic opportunities, bring people and organizations together to work collaboratively, and develop critical spaces for local voices – Global South, women, young people, and at the country level – to be represented in a meaningful way and for their views to be integrated into key international and regional development review processes.

ARROW is one of the very few research hub/think tanks in Asia Pacific bridging the information divide, bringing research into action, and building local capacity to promote partners’ engagement in evidence-based advocacy at the national, regional, and international levels. ARROW’s combined knowledge of the region and success in linking SRHR with other development issues, its ability to document and collaboratively monitor SRHR progress in the region, its information and sharing platforms, and its work in building capacity of regional partners, not only helps to bridge the information divide but provide local partners with the information that is critical for holding governments accountable and conducting evidence-based advocacy with national governments and regional and international stakeholders. ARROW’s collaboration with local, in-country research partners, specifically through the development of 79 SRHR indicators to monitor ICPD commitment, provides nuanced and contextual information for civil society to monitor government accountability to achieve universal access to SRHR.

 

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The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children

The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP)

Context

The practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is internationally recognized as a violation of the human rights of girls and women, with significant and long-lasting consequences on their physical and mental health and wellbeing. FGM refers to all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.i An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone FGM, with 92 million over the age of 10 and residing on the African continent. Moreover, an estimated three million girls are at risk or undergo FGM each year.

FGM is very localized, as the nature and socio-cultural significance of the practice as well as the age when girls undergo FGM are culturally-embedded and may vary significantly, even within one country. However, FGM is also a globalized challenge for the women’s rights movement, as it affects girls and women in contexts where there is a high prevalence as well as those where overall prevalence is very low. With varying prevalence, FGM is practiced in 28 African countries, in the Middle East, and in Southeast Asia. It is also practiced in Europe and North America, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Africa where it was not previously practiced, primarily within immigrant communities from cultures where FGM has a traditionally high prevalence.

International laws and protocols have clearly identified FGM as a harmful traditional practice and a human rights violation. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child call on national governments to eliminate harmful traditional practices, and the African Union Protocol to the Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women explicitly calls on states to prohibit and condemn FGM through the adoption and enactment of laws aimed at its elimination. However, supporting an enabling environment for change requires a national-level commitment. To date, only 19 of the 28 African countries where FGM is practiced have enacted national legislation to eliminate its practice.

FGM has both immediate and long-term physiological and psychological health impacts. Immediate impacts can include hemorrhage, inflammatory diseases, and infections. Long-term consequences can include chronic pain, infections, cysts and abscesses, painful sexual intercourse and increased risks at childbirth, including increased child mortality and the formation of fistulae. Girls who undergo FGM often must shoulder a lifetime burden from the procedure. A multi-country study in six African countries showed that women who had undergone FGM had significantly increased health risks during childbirth, with additional risks for newborns. The study showed that an additional one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM. Moreover, deliveries for women who have undergone FGM are significantly more likely to be complicated by caesarean section, postpartum hemorrhage, episiotomy, extended maternal hospital stay, resuscitation of the infant, and inpatient perinatal death, than deliveries to women who have not undergone FGM.ii The consequences of FGM for most women who deliver outside the hospital setting are expected to be even more severe, especially in rural areas and places where health services are weak or women cannot easily access them.

According to most recent data, the prevalence of FGM in Gambia is 78 percent for women aged 15-49 years—with higher percentages occurring in rural areas and in border communities.iii In many communities, FGM is regarded as a rite of passage to womanhood with strong ancestral and sociocultural roots. Ninety percent of Gambians are practicing Muslims. FGM has often been perceived as a religious obligation for Muslim women, a message reinforced by a number of religious leaders. The practice of FGM is often rationalized as being for the preservation of ethnic and gender identity, femininity, female purity/virginity, and “family honor”; maintenance of cleanliness and health; and assurance of women’s marriageability. In the Gambia, FGM is carried out on girls from newborns to pre-adolescence. As in other contexts, girls and women continue to suffer from adverse health impacts of FGM. For example, a recent study of patients requiring a gynecological examination in Gambia found that 34 percent of those had undergone FGM experienced medical complications as a direct result of FGM.

Although the Government of the Gambia (GoTG) has expressed a commitment to promoting the human rights of girls and women, it has yet to enact an explicit law to eliminate FGM. GoTG has ratified almost all international and regional instruments regarding women and children’s rights, but the explicit references to legal protection of girls and women from the practice of FGM were removed from the texts of both the 2005 National Children Act and the 2010 Women’s Act. Moreover, although there is reference to the elimination of discriminatory and harmful practices that adversely affect women in the National Gender Policy for 2010-2020, there is no explicit mention of FGM in the document and only one reference to “harmful traditional practices.” Women’s rights organizations in Gambia have highlighted that while national laws against FGM are important, making FGM illegal does not eradicate it and should be done in a cautious and thoughtful way so that it does not drive FGM underground. The use of law should thus be one component of a multidisciplinary approach, and must be preceded or complemented by public education and outreach by civil society and government to change perceptions and attitudes regarding FGM. Simply put, creating the enabling environment is necessary but not sufficient for sustained change of attitudes and behaviors around the practice of FGM.

The Gambia is witnessing a growing movement of communities, religious leaders, youth and women’s organizations speaking out about FGM and other harmful traditional practices. According to UNFPA/UNICEF, through the collective efforts of UN agencies and women’s rights organizations, in 2011 alone over 586 communities throughout Gambia announced their commitment to the abandonment of FGM. This momentum builds on the work of the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP), one of Gambia’s oldest women’s rights organizations, and a leader in opening spaces and facilitating conversations about the sexual and reproductive health and rights of women in Gambia. Moreover, GAMCOTRAP is recognized as a leader in West Africa in challenging the deep-seated attitudes that perpetuate the violation of women’s bodily integrity.

Organizational Background

The Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (GAMCOTRAP) was established as the Gambian National Chapter of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices in 1984. With its head office in Serrekunda, The Gambia, GAMCOTRAP works nationwide to raise awareness with the aim of preserving beneficial practices while eliminating all forms of harmful traditional practices. GAMCOTRAP’s work extends throughout the seven administrative districts of The Gambia, including: Banjul; Kanifing Municipality; Western Region; Lower River Region; Central River Region; Upper River Region; and the North Bank Region. In 2011, the organization directly reached a total of 2,720 individuals (approximately 53 percent of whom were girls and women). It estimates that it indirectly reached over 33,000 individuals throughout the country in 2011.

GAMCOTRAP’s main activities include: 1) organizing awareness programs about the harmful effects of FGM for youth, school children, health workers, religious and community leaders, and women’s organizations; 2) coordinating peer health education programs; 3) disseminating human rights and FGM information through media, seminars, and women’s symposiums; 4) operating a trust fund for girls’ education; and 5) advocating for legislation banning FGM. Dr. Isatou Touray, the Founder and Executive Director of GAMCOTRAP, is the Chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Inter Africa Committee on Traditional Practices, a regional network encompassing 32 national chapters throughout the continent, as well as in countries in the Global North with large African immigrant populations.

The Global Fund for Women provided its first grant to GAMCOTRAP in 1997 and has awarded six grants totaling $115,000 since then. Our support has contributed to specific projects and initiatives, including providing scholarships to increase girls’ access to education and keep over 700 girls in school; training and information campaigns for circumcisers and traditional birth attendants; and an initiative to dispel links between Islam and FGM. Our support has also contributed to operating expenses and institutional strengthening, which has enabled GAMCOTRAP to retain qualified program staff and strengthen its organizational capacity. GAMCOTRAP boldly self-identifies as a feminist organization, in its core values, operations and approaches to its work. The organization unequivocally advocates for women’s leadership in all aspects of decision-making, for breaking the silence around African women’s sexuality, and in interrogating the conservative social norms that greatly shape attitudes and behavior around sexual and reproductive rights of women.

GAMCOTRAP’s model is anchored on the idea that change is gradual, especially when dealing with issues that are directly related to sexuality (e.g. FGM, early marriage, sexual and reproductive health), which are considered taboo within the Gambian context. The organization pushes for change by engaging through the traditional socio-cultural and political structures, and builds alliances by engaging key traditional and religious leaders and sensitizing them on the impact of FGM. Moreover, the leaders of GAMCOTRAP present themselves as daughters of the communities in which they work, who have undergone FGM themselves, and not as outsiders. In order to effectively engage in communities, GAMCOTRAP works to understand the dynamics of the culture and decision-making process in individual communities. In its outreach work, GAMCOTRAP emphasizes that while FGM is a cultural practice, cultural practices can and should change when communities realize that they have outlived their value. The organization addresses FGM through the use of several key messages in its outreach activities:

  • FGM is a not a religious obligation (neither Farda nor Sunnah) for Muslim women;
  • FGM negatively affects the health of women and children;
  • FGM violates the bodily rights and sexuality of women;
  • FGM is a form of violence against women and children and;
  • Allah, the Creator of the women’s body, designed it for a purpose and it should be left intact for such functions.

Moreover, by involving allied religious leaders and health care providers in its interventions, the organization is able to make an even stronger case for the promotion of women’s human rights.

Program Methodologies

GAMCOTRAP’s strategies include community sensitization; action research; and capacity-building through training and information campaigns, social mobilization, and advocacy. Collectively, these strategies aim to raise public consciousness about the need to protect the rights of girls and women from the threats of FGM and other forms of gender-based violence. In particular, this case study aims to highlight three specific strategies that are raising awareness about FGM and the need to end the practice in The Gambia.

Community Engagement: Cluster Approach GAMCOTRAP utilizes a cluster approach in which communities are brought together to reach consensus to protect their girl-children. Cluster communities are characterized by a shared geographical location, shared cultural ties, a high level of socialization, and shared circumciser(s) and Traditional Birth Attendant(s). GAMCOTRAP works closely with traditional leaders and chiefs who lead the mapping process and identify clusters that encompass between eight and 19 communities each. By targeting specific clusters, GAMCOTRAP develops a long-standing relationship with the communities that it works with. This approach also supports more extensive outreach. GAMCOTRAP undertakes five to six interventions in each cluster over the course of two days, which include exercises on decision-making, values clarification, and consensus building.

This approach enables the organization to identify and train Community Based Facilitators, who continue the engagement even after GAMCOTRAP’s interventions. Moreover, this approach has enabled representatives from 564 communities in three regions to support their circumcisers to stop the practice of FGM. In many rural communities, circumcisers are also Traditional Birth Attendants, which underlines the need to engage them not only on FGM but also on other matters of women’s sexual and reproductive health. The strategy also ensures that communities act collectively to abandon the practice, so that girls or their families who choose not to undergo FGM are not socially penalized or ostracized by their communities. Overall, GAMCOTRAP has experienced notable success in getting the communities in the clusters to reach a consensus to abandon FGM through public declaration. Having observed considerable success in change of behavior and attitudes around FGM through the use of this strategy, GAMCOTRAP is now using the cluster approach to address other issues related to gender-based violence.

Shifting Cultural Norms: Pubic Declarations through “Dropping of the Knife”Ceremonies GAMCOTRAP organized the first “Dropping of the Knife” ceremony in 2007, where 18 circumcisers, supported by 63 communities, made a public declaration to stop FGM. This launched a movement of Gambian communities coming out to publicly state that FGM was a violation of the GAMCOTRAP (Gambia) - 5 rights of women and girls and to declare their commitment to stopping the practice. The second Dropping of the Knife celebration involved 60 circumcisers supported by 351 communities in the Upper River and some parts of the Central River Region South. GAMCOTROP hosted the third Dropping of the Knife celebration in 2011, where 20 circumcisers, supported by 150 communities in the Lower River Region, made a public declaration to stop FGM and other harmful traditional practices such as early and forced marriages. The next Dropping of the Knife celebration was planned for November/December 2012 and involved 25 circumcisers, along with their children and supporting communities.

Overall, more than one hundred circumcisers have dropped their knives in more than 564 Communities from the Upper River, Central River South and Lower River Regions of the Gambia.GAMCOTRAP works with circumcisers who drop their knives through enterprise development training (provided by A GAMCOTRAP partner organization) as well as grants to engage in alternative livelihoods. Moreover, the Dropping of the Knife ceremonies are also significant because the circumcisers are publicly recognized for the important roles that they play as custodians and leaders within their communities. In turn, many become advocates against FGM in their respective regions. As a result of GAMCOTRAP’s engagement, communities and individuals have been calling for a law to protect girls from FGM. The Dropping of the Knife ceremonies have received significant media attention within Gambia and internationally, and are helping to break the silence and taboo around discussing women’s sexualities.

National Advocacy and Partnerships: Strengthening the Enabling Environment through Advocacy. Since its inception, GAMCOTRAP has worked to strengthen the enabling environment for elimination of FGM through advocacy and outreach to key decision-makers at national and international levels. The organization’s social mobilization initiatives use existing international and national instruments ratified by The Gambia (i.e. Convention on the Rights of the Child; CEDAW; African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child; and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa) as well as the National Policy for the Advancement of Gambian Women to advocate that FGM is a human rights violation.

GAMCOTRAP initiated the drafting of a specific bill against FGM for the Government of the Gambia to consider. This draft continues to be discussed at various levels, and is currently undergoing revisions in preparation for submission to the National Assembly. GAMCOTRAP has conducted consultative trainings with Security Officers, including the Child Protection Unit of the Police, the Army and Immigration Officers, to engage them in creating a protective environment for children against FGM. The organization works closely with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and has worked with various departments in the Department of State for Basic and Secondary Education on developing a module to sensitize primary school students on FGM. An ongoing priority for GAMCOTRAP is the strategic and constructive engagement with key religious leaders and Islamic scholars, particularly given their role in informing social and cultural norms, and in advising policies and procedures. A key outcome of engagement is that communities are now increasingly demanding greater accountability for government policies and services, overall.

In August 2012, GAMCOTRAP received a letter from the Office of the President of the Gambia acknowledging the receipt of the organization’s 2011 final report. The letter, signed by the representative of the Secretary General, stated, I have been directed to convey that the report is duly noted and to assure you of Government’s full support of the crusade against FGM. Furthermore, Government will take appropriate action in consultation with traditional and religious leaders in this regard. Although there is still considerable work to be done to eliminate the practice of FGM in The Gambia, this letter is a powerful and significant recognition of the impact of GAMCOTRAP’s work over the past 28 years.

Learnings

GAMCOTRAP works at various levels and is compelled by community engagement, building relationships of trust, and engaging within traditional structures. In some instances, the national government and certain religious leaders have seen the organization as a threat. However, by working in a steadfast manner to build partnerships, working directly with traditional and religious authorities, and encouraging communities to advocate for women’s rights, it is progressively transforming conversations around women’s rights in Gambia.

The case study of GAMCOTRAP highlighted several aspects of the organization’s work that contribute to the Sub-Saharan Africa team’s learning and regional strategy on sexual and reproductive health and rights. GAMCOTRAP’s cluster approach has facilitated geographically expansive coverage, and it provides a space and opportunity to engage traditional and religious leaders in the mapping process – a crucial precursor to GAMCOTRAP’s interventions. Building trust and a sense of ownership amongst community gatekeepers is essential for addressing sensitive topics such as FGM, and GAMCOTRAP’s work highlights one such strategy.

The cluster approach also demonstrates an awareness of the complex and culturally-embedded nature of the practice. In supporting alternative livelihood options for former circumcisers, GAMCOTRAP’s strategy underlines that SRHR issues are closely interlinked with economic issues, and that it is necessary to address the economic realities that contribute to the perpetuation of some harmful traditional practices Moreover, by engaging former circumcisers and their communities in the public Dropping the Knife ceremonies, GAMCOTRAP affirms the progressive role that these individuals can play in promoting women’s human rights, rather than demonizing them for being circumcisers. Throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa, public conversations about issues related to women’s sexual and reproductive health are often very sensitive, if not taboo. GAMCOTRAP’s strategies demonstrate examples of culturally-appropriate and affirming approaches to addressing very challenging issues such as FGM.

The Sub-Saharan Africa team is particularly interested in strengthening the enabling environment for SRHR and a key strategy is to support organizations working to increase women’s access to information, resources, and services while building community ownership and commitment in order to sustain the promotion of women’s human rights. The Sub-Saharan Africa team’s support to GAMCOTRAP’s work is reflective of our commitment to expanding support to women’s rights organizations working to advance SRHR, particularly because of ways in which SHRH intersects with so many aspects of the daily lives of girls and women throughout the region.

Citations

 
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