With cultural heritage as a method against female genital mutilation

Today, the 6th of February, we pay attention to the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The day was instituted in 2003 when delegates from 30 African countries gathered to find strategies of working together to eliminate female genital mutilation. In sub-Saharan Africa, and in countries such as Tanzania, more and more people are engaged in the fight to eliminate female genital mutilation; one of the most challengeable and hidden violations of human rights.

Kalmar County Museum Sweden are currently working in a collaborative project together with Church of Sweden in Tanzania; to support their efforts towards gender-based violence and FGM. Kalmar County Museum has for a long time worked on highlighting and influencing current social issues through a heritage education and applied heritage, i.e. the Time Travel Method. By using cultural-historical sites and stories, reflection is created about today's challenges in society to create a positive change.

In a country like Tanzania, faith is widespread and a very important part of life. Religious leaders have great influence in the local communities and are therefore seen as change-makers when it comes to promoting gender justice and gender equality in the country.

“We see that cultural heritage and faith as resources in the fight against gender-based violence in Tanzania. By raising contemporary issues with a cultural heritage perspective, you make possible that everyone in a local community gets their voice heard and can contribute to change; especially women and children who otherwise have very little space in decision-making processes,” says Johanna Ejderstedt, international coordinator at Kalmar County Museum.

Kalmar County Museum works within the project to educate the local partner organizations' staff in the Time Travel Method; an interactive method where contemporary issues are discussed in an historical context to reflect and create changes for the future. The time travel method consists of a learning process and an event, where the latter is an interactive role play where all participants engage in discussion and problem-solving.

One of the trainings was held in Singida, in northern Tanzania; an area of ​​high prevalence of FGM. The challenges are many and the issues are complex. It is not possible to blame individuals or groups; the problems are mainly structural and contain a mixture of traditions, norms, power, gender, and economy. What do you do when traditions and cultural heritage are harmful and illegal, while they are valued by large parts of the local community?

In this region, the partner organization CCT (Christian Council of Tanzania) chose to work with the problems associated with lawalawa; an alleged infection that girls get in the genital area and where FGM is performed on infants for preventative purposes. The first case of lawalawa was noticed only a few years after FGM became illegal in Tanzania in the 1970s. The organization 28 Too Many has made a survey showing that lawalawa arose as a reaction to the criminalization of FGM in the 1970s.

During the time travel in Singida, the participants travelled back to 1970; just a few years after FGM became illegal in Tanzania. The time travel revolved around a story of the then existing disease lawalawa; where someone secretly sent for a nurse while the rest of the community members wanted to call in a gariba (a traditional cutter) to cure the girl. How do the community members solve this? What should we believe in?

In the protection of the role play and with the help of the historical framing, the issues, which are current, can still be discussed relatively openly. The discussions were sometimes lively, but something else cannot be counted on. At the end, the participants shared their experiences with each other and the community members agreed on what traditions to keep and what to leave.

During the time travel; community members, local staff from the partner organization CCT, government representatives, healthcare professionals, religious leaders and community volunteers participated. The partner organizations will continue to work with in the communities as these issues are now up for discussion and there is a will to change. Together we can make a difference.

But can a museum work with cultural heritage as a method against FGM?

"Absolutely", says Adam Norman, museum educator at Kalmar County Museum. "With strong partner organizations, the right tools, knowledgeable colleagues and a museum with a great desire to make a difference."

“I am happy about the important work we do and proud to stretch the boundaries of what a museums' social mission really is about. Museums can and should play an active role in the development of society. Not just within their own classical subjects, but stepping outside the comfort zone,” continues Adam.

“The intention is also that we will receive valuable knowledge from this collaboration and actively start working with gender-justice at home in Kalmar county," Johanna concludes. "Gender-based violence and human rights violations are not just a problem in developing countries."

Johanna Ejderstedt, International coordinator, Kalmar county museum


Adam Norman, museum educator, Kalmar county museum


The collaboration project is financed by the Swedish Institute: Creative Force in 2018-20.

Interview with Faustina Nillan, Director of Women and Children, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) - Reflections after first time travel in Tanzania.

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