Campaign to Change Social Norms around FGM in Africa Shows Promise

WASHINGTON, D.C. (March 13, 2019)—A new study finds that a campaign in Sudan to change the social norms around female genital cutting (FGM) is a promising way to protect girls from this harmful practice.

W. Douglas Evans, PhD, professor of prevention and community health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and his colleagues studied the Saleema Initiative in Sudan, a public health campaign to raise awareness of the harm caused by FGM and to change the way the public thinks about this practice.

When a social norm such as FGM is in place, families and individuals engage in the practice because they view it as a common and expected of them, Evans said.  The Saleema Initiative aims to change that norm by providing messages aimed at getting people in Sudan, a country in Northeast Africa, to view girls who have not be circumcised as whole, healthy and intact.

“This study demonstrated that Saleema’s social marketing strategy is effective in changing the belief that FGM is an accepted practice in Sudan,” said Evans. “Viewing FGM as outside of the social norm is the first step towards eliminating the practice.”

Evans designed a method of evaluating the campaign messages in 18 states in Sudan and then gathered data from 2015 to 2017. The team asked people exposed to campaigns to answer questions about FGM and found that as time went on they were less likely to view it as an accepted norm.

 For example, the team asked participants if they agreed with the following: Most of my friends practice cutting. By the end of the study, participants were 35 percent less likely to agree with that statement.

In this study people who were exposed more to Saleema messages were more likely to view FGM as unacceptable, a finding that suggests a dose-response relationship.

The Saleema Campaign was launched in 2008 by the National Council for Child Welfare in collaboration with UNICEF Sudan. Using mass media, the campaign exposed the public, and especially mothers, to positive messages about leaving girls uncut. It runs counter to the deeply held belief there that stigmatizes uncut girls as “disgraced or unclean.”

More research is needed to see if the campaign will change the social norm enough to help eradicate FGM in Sudan, Evans said.

The study, “The Saleema Initiative in Sudan to abandon female genital mutilation: Outcomes and dose response effects,” was published online March 12 in the journal PLOS One. The research was funded by UNICEF.