Civil society organisations have a key role to play in the fight against female circumcision, a harmful practice carried out on over a hundred million girls and women in West African countries.
Enda Third World of Senegal, a member organisation of the Association for Progressive Communications network, thus launched a research programme entitled “Contribution of information and communications technologies (ICTs) towards the discontinuation of female genital mutilation in Francophone Africa: civic role of the youth”; financed by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Ottawa, Canada). This research programme, which began in November 2006, is planning workshops, a documentary analysis, a qualitative participative survey, a virtual forum and a sub-regional symposium.
While there is still food for debate at the international level on the limits of ICTs, it would be useful to question the added value that they can contribute towards the fight against female genital mutilation.
Enhancing the participation of the youth in the development of policies
This programme has the merit of being the first of its kind to deal with the crucial issue of female genital mutilation through the use of ICTs. The activities are carried out in Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, involving young men and women from communities practising female circumcision, who have access to ICTs.
Interventions to stop this practice are increasing, and prevention policies have been adopted in the countries. However, youths are not involved in the development and monitoring of these policies; especially young girls, who are also victims of female circumcision.
“The strategic use of ICTs, actively involving the youth, will allow the plunge to be taken with regard to the prevention of female circumcision, dissemination of knowledge and information, promotion of exchanges, communication and integration in languages, formats and applications relevant for the communities, while strengthening their capacities for citizen participation” can be read in the presentation document of the Enda Third World project.
Assuredly, ICTs will allow young women, who are subject to the harmful effects of female circumcision, to communicate amongst themselves, to exchange and develop strategies, but also to express themselves freely.
Young women, major winners in the digital revolution
Those in charge of the programme acknowledge the problems of access to ICTs for the communities who practice female circumcision in the three countries. There is, however, an optimistic note with rapid penetration of cellular telephony in the rural areas and gradual access of the populations to the internet. The communities which practise female circumcision would be on the “wrong side of the digital divide”. In fact, problems of connectivity, illiteracy of the populations and the cost of computer equipment continue to be obstacles.
Those in the charge of the project note the dynamism of the youth and affirm that “young women are the major winners in the digital revolution”. There would therefore be assurance that the young women living in the communities which practice female circumcision will be affected by the programme and will actively participate in the activities. In numerous countries in West and Central Africa, young women have become the most seasoned internet users, compared with their elders and relations.
The screaming lack of local content on female genital mutilation
ICTs may be used to document cases of female circumcision, publish statistical data and promote the integration of African legislation in the matter of the fight against female circumcision, amongst other things. However, there is a lack of local content on female genital mutilation that meets the needs of young men and women.
Pioneer initiatives such as the portal www.stopfgmc.org launched by the Italian Association of Women for Development (AIDOS) with European Union funds in 2002, have been very successful. Featuring amongst the objectives of this internet portal are the dissemination of documents produced in Africa, in order to change the trend of making the discontinuation of female genital mutilation a priority for western countries, and of showing an Africa rooted in its traditions and less concerned by the issue.
This internet portal has the merit of presenting detailed information on the actors, international human rights instruments, national laws and policies, programmes and projects in text, audio and video form.
Given that, with the development of new tools, users of information and communications technologies (ICTs) can “express themselves through self-created content, and participate in a more active and collaborative manner in the creation and consumption of content.” Thus, young women marginalised in the prevention of female circumcision and even in decision-making may take advantage of these new tools to make their voices heard.
During virtual discussions, the participants claimed that the www.stopfgmc.org portal can give the voice to women and girls who have been circumcised, to those active in the fight against female genital mutilation and to those circumcisers who have discontinued this practice.
Creating synergies and exchanging through portals dedicated to female circumcision
The electronic discussion list created in May 2007 by ENDA Third World mobilised 216 participants including young citizens from 15 to 25 years of age, as well as other participants, to look into issues related to preparation for the integration of West-African policies, but also sharing experiences on the discontinuation of female circumcision.
During online exchanges on the theme : “endeavours and experiences with regard to the use of ICTs within the framework of female circumcision” it was acknowledged that the circulation of information has progressively enabled increased understanding of female genital circumcision, and the orientation of policies aimed at its discontinuation. An officer of the Italian Association of Women for Development (AIDOS) active in Senegal, emphasised that “access to information gives power, energy and enables an improvement in the condition of women, and people in general”. She also notes that “thanks to email, a broader participation in debates than that allowed by television, radio and newspapers, which continue in any case to be inescapable, is possible in the vast world of the net”.
Users wish for the development of interactive internet portals on female genital mutilation. “… there will also be a need to put online instructional and educational tools that are easily “downloadable” such as posters with expressive designs and poignant messages and CD ROMs. These tools could be used by other associations for awareness-raising and propaganda. Video and audio testimonies of ex-circumcisers must also feature… ” declared one of the participants in the discussions.
Will ICTs really help young citizens in stopping female circumcision?
In summary, “even if considerable progress has been made in certain countries, worrying trends are starting to appear, such as the medicalisation of these mutilations, parents seeking to minimise the effects of circumcision on the health of their daughters” as denounced recently by the Director of the Africa Division of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Information and communications technologies (ICTs) may certainly bring about a meaningful change in the fight against the discontinuation of female circumcision.
The programme, “Contribution of information and communications technologies (ICTs) towards the discontinuation of female genital mutilation in Francophone Africa: citizen role of the youth”, developed by ENDA Third Wold has the merit of mobilising young women. However, shadow areas persist.
Although one of the objectives is to touch over eight hundred community and public decision-makers, how can it be ensured that the recommendations developed in the virtual discussions are taken into account? To what extent do decision-makers support initiatives for the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) by young citizens so that they contribute towards stopping female circumcision in communities which are often resistant?
 Sacha Wunsch-Vincent- Internet participatif : contenu créé par l’utilisateur (Participatory internet : content created by the user). June 2007