EMERGE blog 3: Are we revolutionising or replicating patterns? Calling on men without calling them protectors

In this third blog in the EMERGE series, Erin Stern discusses the work of Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma in Ethiopia, which includes involving men and boys in efforts to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting. 

Each year, more than three million girls, the majority in Sub-Saharan Africa, are at risk of undergoing female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM-C), which involves partial or total removal of the female external genitals. The practice can create severe consequences for women’s psychological, sexual and reproductive health, including frequent bladder and urinary tract infections, kidney infections, cysts, infertility, heightened risk of acquiring HIV, childbirth complications, maternal and newborn deaths.

One of the critical underlying motivators of FGM-C is to ensure the marriageability of young girls and women, which necessitates involving men and boys in the abandonment of this human rights violation. Yet it is important to consider how to engage men and boys in this sensitive domain without reinforcing men’s control of or policing over girls and women’s’ sexuality.  

The work of Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma in Ethiopia

The NGO KMG Ethiopia - which means “women of Kembatta working together” - has been found to dramatically challenge the social acceptance of and prevalence of FGM-C. Several months ago, as part of the research process for EMERGE case study 3, 21 KMG beneficiaries and staff were interviewed in Addis Ababa and the Kembatta Zone of Ethiopia. They discussed how KMG’s active involvement of men and women through community conversations provided a needed space to identify the harmful effects of FGM-C on women and girls, and tapped into men’s vested interests as husbands, fathers, colleagues etc. to advocate for its elimination. Indeed, one of the strongest motivators given for boys and men to advocate against the practice of FGM-C was to reduce women’s risk of maternal mortality. KMG also publicly celebrates and supports men who openly and proudly marry women who have not been circumcised; which was said to be critical for generating confidence among families and unmarried women of their marriageability.

KMG’s approach

KMG educates communities about Ethiopian laws and and policies outlawing FGM-C, which could give credibility to supporting its abandonment. Through the community groups, men and women established and implemented sanctions for those who continue the practice, such as being dismissed from church or mosque, or expulsion from self-help groups, which were said to play an integral role in the communities. Income generating activities with men and women and structural development offered by KMG also helped secure community buy in and could allow men to appreciate the benefits of women gaining economic assets. As the case study shows, KMG also positioned FGM-C as both a health and human rights violation and promoted women’s rights to inheritance of property, political participation, positive sexuality and household decision-making.

What role do men and boys take?

Men and boys were said to be significant allies to women in the elimination of FGM-C for having more influence in legal, political and economic arenas and given that “men’s voices are heard more.” While mixed gender groups were important for establishing collaboration and trust and identifying the relational harms of FGM-C, some men assumed leadership and advisory positions alongside the perception that women often face difficulties speaking publicly or boldly with men present. Although KMG sought to challenge inequitable power dynamics, there remained the possibility that men’s assumed patriarchy and influence, particularly in public spaces, could unintentionally be reinforced.

What can we learn from this?

Programmes engaging men and boys to promote and secure women and girls’ sexual and health rights should be aware of potential risks and unintended consequences of tapping into men’s access, and monitor the extent of patriarchal norms, men and women’s agency in their evaluation efforts. In the case of FGM-C abandonment efforts, one could assess for instance what are the implications of shifting social norms among men and boys in support of the elimination of FGM-C for girls and women who are already circumcised? What might the implications be among married couples? How do we understand the agency of girls and women to choose whether or not to undergo circumcision when it is so inherently linked to being marriageable to men? Could men holding other women circumcisers accountable for abandoning the practice be problematically read as men policing women’s actions?

KMG’s activities to eliminate FGM-C offer many valuable insights including not conceptualizing such practices as individually rooted but tied to social and gender norms related to tradition, culture, and marriageability. KMG worked at the level of community social norms including among reference groups that hold and enforce social norms; a critical group being men and boys as potential husbands and for having influence in public spaces. KMG’s gender transformative reflection, awareness raising, community activism and economic empowerment was found to not only combat FGM-C but also shift to more gender equitable relations. Yet, there seemed to be limited impact encouraging men to reflect on or transform their attitudes and behaviours in relation to privilege in public spaces. This is reflective of change as a process and the importance of understanding different levels of change among men according to diverging spaces.

Key questions that remain to be addressed are how interventions such as KMG can support men’s role as change agents in ways that do not inadvertently reinforce their social and political dominance, or control over women’s bodies and sexuality, but rather transform patriarchal norms and institutions. Calling on men not as protectors or leaders but as equal allies, which in some cases may mean stepping down or aside, in the struggle for sexual rights for women.

To find out more about KMG’s work in Ethiopia, read the EMERGE case study and story of change here



February 2016

Erin Stern

Research Consultant
Sonke Gender Justice

Dr. Erin Stern is currently coordinating the impact evaluation of the Indashyikirwa (agents of change) community gender based violence prevention program in Rwanda as part of the Global What Works to Prevent Violence Initiative. For the past few years she has been a research consultant with Sonke Gender Justice and in this capacity was a lead researcher on the EMERGE project. She is also an honorary research associate with the School of Public Health at the University of Cape Town.