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Slowly, Africa rethinks a tradition

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The success of Care's project here stands in contrast to many earlier, more aggressive interventions on FGM. In the past, propelled by a deep sense that the practice was a flagrant human-rights abuse and a moral wrong, many interventions turned to the legal and criminal systems for help. The United Nations repeatedly called for an end to the practice, and nine African countries declared it illegal and punishable by jail terms.

But these approaches were often ineffective and even counterproductive, pushing the practice underground, charge observers. In Kenya, for example, when FGM was outlawed two years ago, mothers began circumcising daughters upon birth - so as to less easily be detected - putting them at further risk.

"What many of us are realizing is that the only way to make and maintain change is to use a participatory, educational approach," says Mr. Woldemariam. As such, his teams spent time with religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, trying to trace the origins of the practice in either the Koran or the Bible, where none were found. Facilitators listened as women here admitted the problems with the practice, and prodded them to discuss the implications of all this information. "The last thing we want to do," says Woldemariam, "is condescend."

This participatory approach is increasingly prevalent, says Clare Short, Britain's secretary of state for international development, on a visit to Ethiopia last month. "Our paradigm of development is to ... help a community decide what is best for itself," she told African development specialists. "No more specialists and advisers jetting in from the West - only to set up projects which are totally unsustainable."

When it comes to FGM, there are a growing indications this new approach is working. In Senegal and Guinea, for example, women's groups are helping to create alternative rites of passage that emphasize positive cultural rituals without FGM. In Uganda, education projects by local NGOs have managed to completely stop the practice in some regions.

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