Female genital mutilation (FGM), or the removal of some or all the external female genitalia, is a deep-rooted traditional practice with severe health implications for girls and women, the United Nations has repeatedly stated. Akintayo Odeyemi, an Adventist scholar and researcher, discussed the complexities of this global scourge at the Congress on Social Justice at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States, on October 15.
In his online presentation, Odeyemi, who recently served as executive director in the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Africa Regional Office, suggested what Seventh-day Adventist advocates and church members can do to oppose FGM and create lasting change in communities.
What and Why
Odeyemi shared that FGM is more prevalent in certain African countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, and Mali. It is often performed between the eighth day after birth and about nine years old. In some countries, more than 80 percent of girls have gone through FGM before their 10th birthday. Instruments used to perform the operation range from knives and razor blades even to sharp stones. According to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO), the use of anesthetic and antiseptics is uncommon.
The reasons for practicing FGM are various, Odeyemi acknowledged. They include tradition, alleged preservation of virginity, and supposed prevention of promiscuity. It is also seen as part of a girl’s rite of passage into adulthood and social acceptance. Several factors encourage the persistence of the practice, Odeyemi said, including ignorance, lack of health education, and what he called “a widespread but false belief that FGM is endorsed by religion.”
FGM as a social justice issue
The effects of the practice are often devastating, Odeyemi emphasized. They include both immediate and life-long complications and consequences, such as excruciating pain, infections, sexual dysfunction, and even infertility. But adverse effects go beyond the physical. Quoting a statement by the WHO, he said that “women may suffer feelings of incompleteness, anxiety, depression, chronic irritability, and frigidity…. Many girls and women, traumatized by their experience but with no acceptable means of expressing them, suffer in silence.”
FGM is now considered a violation of human rights. “Every girl and woman has the right to be protected from this harmful practice, which is a manifestation of entrenched gender inequality with devastating consequences,” Odeyemi read, quoting a March 2020 profile published by UNICEF.
Against this background, Odeyemi shared what ADRA is doing in Kenya to curb the number of girls subjected to this practice.
Stopping the bleeding
According to an article on FGM by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), around 200 million women alive today have undergone some type of FGM, and another 68 million are at risk of being mutilated by 2030. “This should not be allowed to happen,” Odeyemi said. He added that Bible-believing Christians have God’s direct instruction to care. Psalm 82:3 commands us, “Do justice to the afflicted and needy,” he said.
Odeyemi shared that since 2003, ADRA has been working with communities to curb FGM, specifically in Kenya. “ADRA Kenya has vast experience working through community-centered approaches,” he reported. Some of ADRA’s strategies include the involvement of gatekeepers, including perpetrators. It implies building consensus in the community, strengthening child protection, and finding ways to empower vulnerable girls. It also contemplates involving men, boys, and youths to increase their acceptance of girls, he said.
“ADRA has been supporting the formation of school children’s clubs, suggesting alternative rites of passages, and working with local churches to provide parenting sessions,” Odeyemi said. The agency is also promoting girls’ education and community health programs, he added. “Education is essential. Many do it that way because they don't know otherwise. [FGM] has been practiced for generations. But we are seeing changes,” he shared.
The results of ADRA “non-confrontational advocacy” are slow but tangible, Odeyemi reported. From 2010 to 2018, ADRA contributed to rescuing at least 8,192 girls from FGM as part of one of its Girl Child/Women Empowerment Project in Kenya. “It might seem a small number, but every one of them represents a life transformed for good,” he said.
Some significant challenges remain, Odeyemi acknowledged. Some people keep resisting change, and some ethnic groups keep trying to impose FGM on their women. At the same time, some mothers and grandmothers who underwent FGM as children are often its more staunch advocates, he shared. COVID-19 has also negatively impacted the Adventist Church’s intervention plan against FGM, Odeyemi said. “FGM should not be seen in isolation,” he advised, “as you need to address other issues like access to education and health care at the same time.”
Despite the odds, Odeyemi reported, ADRA workers have witnessed “an increase in the number of community members who support putting an end to the FGM practice. In several ethnic groups, we can see a positive change in attitude,” he said. “We can state that ADRA is stopping the bleeding in Kenya.”
Challenges and Opportunities
The lively Q&A session with participants devoted time to outlining some of the remaining challenges faced by workers who are trying to put an end to the practice. Wagner Kuhn, Andrews University professor of world mission, emphasized that by changing beliefs and traditions, advocates can effect changes in the communities they serve.
Odeyemi agreed. “Community-based structures play a vital role in pushing for and sustaining change.”
There are practical hurdles, however. One element that, according to Kuhn, makes the fight against FGM more difficult is that organizations fighting it often must deal with permissive local laws even in countries that have forbidden the practice. “In those places, local laws are usually not contested or overruled by the government,” he explained.
Peer pressure and local customs also play a pivotal role, Kuhn said. He shared the story of an Adventist family in Kenya that was actively involved in fighting FGM. One day, the woman’s daughter insisted that she wanted to visit some relatives in a rural area. When her parents kept asking her to tell them what she was up to, they found out that her daughter’s friends had insisted that she needed to undergo FGM, and she had decided to go to a village to get it done.
“This is much deeper than any one of us can understand in the West,” Kuhn said. “Many times, these cultural practices can enslave you; you can’t see otherwise unless you study the issue and are convinced by the Holy Spirit that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that you have been created in God’s image.”
Adventist Church Members and FGM
A participant asked panelists what church members should do in response to the appalling reality and prevalence of FGM. “We must fight for complete eradication of this practice,” Odeyemi unambiguously replied. But it is a long and complex process, he acknowledged, even within the Adventist Church in those regions.
He shared how he goes from place to place, talking to church members to find out what they know and think about the topic. “I asked them the question, ‘Is it fair? Yes, I know it is cultural, but is it fair?’” Odeyemi shared. “ ‘Is this the biblical culture, or just yours?’ ” he asks them.
In many cases, Odeyemi explained, church members tell him, “I am confused.” Workers like him eventually take church members to a point where they can see the light about the matter. But it is not an easy outcome, he explained, as cultural elements are so embedded in the life and practice of some church members that any drastic change will be detrimental to their church membership and even to their faith. “It has to be carefully done,” he acknowledged. “It is all about education, starting with the Bible, and moving slowly to show them that such cultural practices are against the kingdom of God.”
From a missiological perspective, Kuhn explained, “sometimes the missionary, the health educator, the ADRA worker who go to those places are not involved in that mindset, so they are naturally transformers, changers of culture.” Kuhn added that we should oppose the area of anthropology that suggests that we should always preserve local culture. “We can’t [work to] preserve cultures that enslave, oppress, abuse other people.” In that sense, he said, “I want to applaud what Doctor Odeyemi is doing with ADRA in that context in Kenya.”