International Women’s Day: Ending harmful social norms and valuing women and girls

International Women’s Day: Ending harmful social norms and valuing women and girls




While some may criticise it as the commercialisation of women’s issues, others see International Women’s Day as a way to refocus attention on issues that continue to block women’s progress.

To highlight one such issue, the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), hosted a live-streamed conversation on International Women’s Day itself (8 March) on the issue of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

The panel was chaired by Joy Lo Dico, Executive Editor and columnist at the London Evening Standard and included two speakers: Nimco Ali and Nicola Jones.

Ali is an anti-FGM activist and FGM survivor. She is also the Co-founder of Daughters of Eve a not-for-profit set up to protect girls and young women who are at risk from FGM.

Jones is the Principal Research Fellow at ODI and the Director of Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), the largest global study on adolescents, following 18,000 girls and boys in developing countries to understand what works to enhance adolescent capabilities and empowerment.

Given both of the panelists’ backgrounds, the rich conversation brought up a wide variety of interesting points from defining the problem to identifying solutions. Lo Dico noted early on, “It’s been extraordinary to see the interventions on FGM and how fast change can happen if you have the right voices, the right people and the will to do something on the ground.”

On sharing her own experience, Ali explained that while she had moved to the UK from Somalia aged 4, she had been subjected to FGM at age 7 while on holiday in Djibouti with her family. This led to serious medical complications aged 11, which resulted in hospitalisation.

Years later in 2006, when Ali was then in her twenties, she was speaking with teenagers of Somali origin in the UK and discovered that 13 out of 14 young girls had been subjected to FGM. In that moment she felt her silence up to that point regarding her own experience of FGM had made her complicit in the wider misunderstanding of the practice. Furthermore, that a form of violence towards women and girls was happening in the UK, a country she had thought would protect girls like her, provided her with the conviction to do something about it and she has been an prolific anti-FGM activist ever since. As she puts it, “FGM is not a virus, you can’t get an antibiotic to fix it. It’s deep-rooted, organised crime.”

Both Ali and Jones discussed the variation in types of FGM that can take place, as well as the circumstances and practices that differ from country to country.

Ali herself explained, “In the Somali community the practice [of FGM] is so entrenched that no one asks why it is being done. It is a norm. It carries on as a cycle. The reality is a lot people don’t want FGM to happen but they don’t know that other people also don’t want FGM to happen.”

In her extensive work on social norms the academic Cristina Bicchieri points out many of our behaviours are interdependent, “they depend on what we believe others will do (our empirical expectations), and on what we think others think we should do (our normative expectations).” The practice of harmful gender norms was discussed in great detail, with the panel in agreement that FGM as a practice is intertwined in the valuing (or undervaluing) of girls more generally.

Jones added that ODI’s research to date has underlined how sticky or entrenched gender norms can be. There is no linear path to change, therefore it is necessary to consider the peaks and troughs that will be encountered along the way.

Both Ali and Jones touched on the impact of ICT solutions on an issue like FGM in terms of gathering data that can inform an evidence base and decision-making. While phones and tablets are used to carry out surveys and collect real time results, Jones pointed out that there is a limiting element to their use in that they lack the ability to dig deeper into experiences. A positive of digital tools is the anonymity in discussing a topic such as FGM that is highly stigmatised. Ali mentioned a Kenyan example where Whatsapp is being used as a way for people to ask questions about FGM, in an effort to dispel myths and correct misinformation.

In terms of international intervention in what Ali is attributing as a predominantly African problem that demands an African solution, she warns of the “white saviour complex” and of international development agencies being told what they want to hear as regards the ending of FGM, only for the practice to continue uninhibited. Ali provided a counter to this in the form of Kenya where less international development money has been spent on FGM, while rates are dropping. She attributes this to the presence of real agency within the government and within community led conversations.

International Women’s Day 2019 also marked a milestone in relation to FGM in the UK with the first ever sentencing taking place of a mother who inflicted FGM on her three years old daughter. The case is only the fourth FGM prosecution brought to court in the UK, with the previous cases leading to acquittals.

Ultimately, Ali says she is campaigning for her 7-year-old self by continuing to make a case that proves an uncut girl is more valuable to the world and that investing in girls benefits everyone.

Ali predicts that 70 million girls could be saved from being cut by now and 2030. She underlined that, “We all have a role to play and it’s about standing in solidarity with women on the African continent. This is an African led movement and I don’t believe we should be substituting their voices or high jacking their work.”

Video and images courtesy of the Overseas Development Institute –

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