Photo credit: Nicky Kelvin
First African Summit on FGM and Child Marriages: What Can We Learn from African Activism?

By: İlayda Eskitaşçıoğlu

Female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriages (CMs) are harmful practices deeply rooted in traditions and underpinned by gender inequality and poverty. Despite international human rights frameworks, resolutions of the United Nations and pan-African organisations, and domestic laws criminalizing FGM in most African countries, these practices remain widespread in the continent.

According to the African Union, more than 200 million women and girls worldwide and in Africa continue to suffer the effects of FGM, and according to current estimates, 50 million girls are at risk of being victims by 2030. Worldwide, one in four women are married before the age of 18.

While data from 47 African countries show that the median age of first marriage is gradually increasing, the overall rate of increase remains slow. In some African countries, the advocacy of women’s organizations has helped to reduce the prevalence rates of FGM and CM. However, despite the favourable legal environment, the impact of laws is often hindered by harmful traditional practices and religious beliefs held by religious and/or community leaders whose influence weighs more heavily than the bans imposed by the African States.

The First African Summit on FGM and Child Marriages, held in Dakar, Senegal, between 16-18 June 2019, aimed to eradicate these harmful practices. I am honoured to have been invited by my mentor, women’s rights activist and anti-FGM campaigner Jaha Dukureh, who is a regional UN Women Ambassador, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and the lead organizer of the summit. The governments of Senegal and Gambia co-organized the summit, in collaboration with the Big Sisters Movement and the NGO Safe Hands for Girls, gathering approximately 500 participants from more than 17 African countries. Among the stakeholders were the heads of states and governments, technical and financial partners, religious and traditional leaders, civil society organisations, survivors, and youth organisations whose influence is already helping to reduce the prevalence of these two harmful practices.

The First African Summit on FGM and Child Marriages offers us many lessons and is a successful case of regional activism for three main reasons: 1)It offers a genuine multi-stakeholder platform; 2)It is an African-led, youth-led, women-led, and survivor-led movement; and 3)It has set concrete goals, taking action for implementation and facilitating discussions with pertinent content.

Firstly, the summit has not made the common mistake of gathering like-minded activists and preaching to the converted. Although the main motivation of the participants was the elimination of harmful practices, participants—ranging from ministers, UN leaders and heads of state, FGM survivors, international media, religious leaders, and tribal elders—brought vastly different perspectives to the table. This diversity among participants has resulted in fruitful discussions within four working groups focusing on: 1)Data collection challenges concerning FGM and CM; 2)Social norms and health consequences; 3)Proposals of alternative funding models designed to leverage more resources; and 4)Policy making, legislation, and implementation. This genuine multi-stakeholder platform is capable of catalyzing cross-sectoral and cross-border actions, recognising that national laws against FGM and child marriages alone have not eradicated these harmful practices, which are deeply rooted in cultural norms, and often undertaken in the name of religion.

Moreover, although the summit was predominantly funded by UN Women, the UNFPA, and the World Bank, all speakers, leading participants, organizers, and promoters were based in Africa. Therefore, the calls for action, discussions, and commitments were fully compatible within the African context.

Jaha Dukureh commenced the summit with the following words: “Throughout history, people have seen us Africans as incapable of tackling our own issues. They bring solutions into our communities and tell us what to do and how to do it. And for the first time, we came together and did something.”

Aya Chebbi, the African Union Youth Envoy, described the summit as “the start of a Pan-African movement to end FGM, child marriages, and all harmful practices in Africa. This is an Africa-led, female-led, survivor-led movement.” Indeed, as a young PhD student researching international human rights law, the summit was a refreshing and promising experience where I witnessed unusual scenes in which young FGM and CM survivors were at the podium while UN leaders and state officials were among the audience.

The summit had concrete goals and dispersed strong messages. The main aim, as set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, was to eliminate FGM and child marriages in Africa by 2030.

Seventeen governments committed to promote laws and policies related to asset ownership, economic entitlement, and family law in order to address the root causes of inequality that lead to the practice of child marriage, as well as to promote safer societies for girls and women. In Dukureh’s words: “Without real mechanisms at the grassroots level, national laws will not translate to eliminating the scourge of FGM and child marriage by 2030, as set out by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. All countries signed up to these, including the 17 African nations represented at the Africa4Girls Summit. Legal aid, community paralegals, and activism must come together to make policy a reality. Many countries have laws making child marriage and FGM a crime. But these things are practised in communities, often unaware of the national laws. Educating communities on their rights, engaging girls and families directly, should be an obligation. Otherwise, who does policy ultimately protect?”

A ground-breaking outcome of the summit was the announcement of a fatwa (a legal opinion on a point of Islamic law) against child marriage, proposed by deputy Grand Imam of Al Azhar Al Sharif, Dr Salah Abbas. The translated text of the fatwa states that “The age of 18 marks the stage at which a woman can validly express her will to marry. This guarantees that she can enjoy her fundamental rights to childhood, education, and the capacity to assume the responsibilities of marriage. Before that age, she will not have had access to those necessary rights and is not able to assume the responsibility of marriage; and God would not impose on His servants an obligation that they cannot fulfil.” In addition, Al-Azhar recalled previous fatwas against FGM, hoping they will offer guidance for religious leaders in Africa and across the world.

The summit concluded with the Dakar Declaration, emphasizing the essentiality of regional commitments to enhance the integration of traditional and religious leaders’ roles in mobilising community level reduction in the practices of FGM and child marriage; the importance of improving data collection and qualitative metrics for measuring progress toward changing knowledge, attitudes, and practices; setting a goal for the establishment of a robust inter-religious framework at a regional level; and calling attention to the prioritization of resources in grassroots efforts.

In addition to the Dakar Fatwa and Dakar Declaration, the summit gave clear and strong messages resulting from pertinent discussions. These messages included the following:

  • The terminology used among anti-FGM activists should change from “FGM victims” to “FGM survivors”,
  • The naming of “child marriage” legitimizes child rape, and
  • FGM should not be solely affiliated with Africa, Muslim communities, or extreme poverty. FGM is a deeply embedded harmful practice and a worldwide problem, and women of power who are FGM survivors should come forward and call for action.

All in all, the First African Summit on FGM and Child Marriages is a successful outcome of effective activism. As a result of two years of hard work, the organizers brought several sectors together in order to have honest conversations, took a semi-legal concrete step for better implementation of national laws through issuing a fatwa from a well-respected religious institution, mobilized a movement led by young African women with concrete goals, and managed to verbalize both problems and solutions.

The role of youth empowerment for gender equality is being increasingly discussed within the international human rights community. The Africa4Girls 2030 Dakar Summit was an ideal example and a strong indicator for its potential. As Aya Chebbi rightfully puts it: “When young people promise, young people deliver.”