How to fight female genital mutilation with economics

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Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a CNN contributor and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of "Ashley's War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield." The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (CNN)Seleiman Bishagazi never enjoyed the benefits of a university education, but he's smarter on a basic human rights issue than nearly anyone I've met in the world.

This activist showed me what ground-level investigation, hard-core determination and a lot of community conversation taught him about the practice of female genital mutilation: Follow the money.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Female genital mutilation is not an issue I ever thought about in economic terms. In pieces I wrote over the years about this practice of using (often unsterile) knives to remove in part or in total a girl's external genitalia, people would talk with me about it as a cultural practice -- one that girls and women in communities had begun to stand up to, but one that activists fighting the practice said only changed generationally.

    'Girls as capital'

    "When I saw girls and the way they were going through this pain, I thought, 'This must stop,' " Bishagazi, chairman of Kipunguni Knowledge Center, a community group in Dar es Salaam, told me. "It made me become a champion of stopping this practice."
    But stop it how?
    According to Bishagazi, families would get monetary gifts when their daughters underwent the procedure.
    "I used to attend ceremonies, and I saw how people were benefiting from this," he says.
    "I knew right away they were using FGM as a source of income because people would say, 'I will build a house after my daughter goes through this.' They were using girls as capital."
    Girls as capital. Female genital mutilation as an economic transaction as much as a cultural tradition. It all became clear as Bishagazi recounted his journey to get to the source of the practice. It's a journey that offers tremendous insight into how to end practices that threaten the well-being of girls and women across the globe.

    Dollars drive the practice

    Once Bishagazi figured out that one big part of the incentive behind female genital mutilation was economic, he decided to ask more about how and why. The answers quickly became clear.
    Parents would talk with him about how they bought land on the gift money they received after cutting ceremonies. Older women who wielded the knives talked about the money they would make during the cutting season, which arrived every two years, in years divisible by two. Even brothers would benefit from the presents that came in as their sisters faced the knife in the name of tradition.
    Poverty -- at least as much as culture, in Bishagazi's community -- stood behind the continuation of female genital mutilation, he came to realize. And so earning money would have to be at the center of stopping cutting.
    The prospect of jail clearly was not enough. The practice of female genital mutilation is outlawed in Tanzania but continues despite the threat of imprisonment, especially among the nation's poorest. According to the UNICEF, in 2016, among Tanzania's most impoverished citizens, a quarter of girls and women ages 15 to 49 have undergone the procedure. That number drops to 6% among the wealthiest Tanzanians.
    Those in the Kipunguni program discuss how to stop the practice.
    So Bishagazi, as a community leader determined to change the status quo, decided to attack the issue with economics and education. Neither on its own, he felt certain, would actually make a difference. It would take the two of them together. He turned to a women's rights nongovernmental organization called the Tanzania Gender Networking Program, or TGNP, for help.
    "We had a big event at TGNP and what he did was to bring people from Kipunguni to attend that event so that they could learn the negative side of FGM," says Lilian Liundi, executive director of TGNP. "He asked for a bus to go and pick members of Kipunguni community to come and attend the event. ... The event was quite successful and that is where they learned a lot about FGM and the impact of FGM."
    Says Liundi, "This thing they do, it is because they get money. So he knew that if they have alternative ways of getting money, then that will help them to leave practicing FGM."

    Creating a financial alternative

    Bishagazi began to attack the problem from the ground up. Literally.
    He says he knew that women who were cutting girls received about 30,000 Tanzanian shilling (roughly $14) for one girl. So he tried to figure out how to replace that income.
    "Agriculture was not a hard thing to do, it didn't need a lot of capital, and a lot of women were doing it in other places," Bishagazi says. It also provided a steadier source of income than female genital mutilation, which is only conducted for a short period every two years.
    So Bishagazi suggested they start, together, growing things on a plot of land he had access to, beginning with vegetables. He didn't have money from any local charities, but he did get fertilizer and seeds from a local church that supported his efforts.
    Women in the Kipunguni program stand in their community garden.
    After two growing cycles, and once the vegetables began turning a profit, he started talking with the women performing female genital mutilation about the problems that came with the practice -- that it is considered violence against women under the law and could land them in prison.
    Bishagazi's fellow program members agree that the convincing began once the money started coming in.
    "When you do agriculture, you can earn" roughly $10 a day, says Fatima Brahman, a Kipunguni community leader. "And you can do it throughout the year. And it is clean and legal money."
    That argument convinced parents and women who previously supported cutting to join the effort. Thus far, Bishagazi says, the community program has close to 150 members.
    Bishagazi and Brahman are not alone in turning to new sources of income in an effort to disrupt the tradition. Tanzanian charities designed to stop female genital mutilation have offered women startup capital to get them to end these practices and focus on small business. Bishagazi says at least two women have now stopped cutting and become part of his community program. A third is strongly considering it.
    Slowly and step by step, with introductions and educational materials from TGNP, Bishagazi has built a community group focused on farming, women's leadership and safety. A youth garden for children to come and plant in after school is also part of the program. The adults are focused on growing vegetables, earning incomes and spreading the word that female genital mutilation risks women's lives and the community's health. The teens tend to the chickens and the vegetables -- and, soon, the fish pond -- and tell the older people if they hear of parents who are seeking to perform the procedure on their daughters.

    The work is not easy

    "Since I joined the program last year, I am waiting to see if next year the girls I have talked to will have to undergo the procedure," says Victoria Johnson, a 20-year-old involved in the Kipunguni program. Next year will be pivotal for the program to see if its efforts to educate and offer alternative incomes will make a difference. "It is very hard for them to understand because they are raised like that, to think it is a good thing."
    Johnson faced the threat of cutting when she turned 18. She refused to undergo the process. She says angry relatives called her rejection of the practice "shameful" and told her father he was raising his children "against our culture." Johnson is among a lucky few: Her father sided with her and said that she didn't have to go through with the cutting if she didn't wish.
    Gayle Tzemach Lemmon speaks with Seleiman Bishagazi about his work.
    Many are not so lucky.
    "I joined this program because I was not happy about undergoing cutting," Upendo Jackson says. "I refused to go through with it, but I had no choice." She puts her head in her hands for a moment as she talks to me about the pain she endured during female genital mutilation. "My mother was there and she thought it was the right thing because she went through it, and she was also very happy because afterward she got gifts from all the women."
    Jackson stayed in bed sick for weeks after undergoing the procedure.
    "It was so painful," she says. "I lost a lot of blood."
    She vowed her younger sister would not face what she did. She says she took her to the police station and told the authorities to protect her sister. And she became committed to stopping the practice so that other girls would not have to face the hell she endured.
    Jackson says she agrees with Bishagazi that dollars drive the practice.
    "Many people doing FGM are doing it because they're poor," Jackson says. She cites her own story -- and notes that her mother bought land with the money she got from her cutting. "We think we could end it if people could get some capital."
    Other young women in the program say that ending the practice is about standing up for themselves.

    Empowering women through economics

    "It is not the women who decide; it is the elders who say we have to continue this practice," says Justina Gasaya, a 20-something woman who is part of Bishagazi's program. "So when women are empowered, especially economically, it gives them power. And changes the balance of power in the community."
    And getting more capital and more resources -- more power -- to women in his community is indeed Bishagazi's aim. He wants to grow the community's agriculture business, starting with planting vegetables and raising chickens and fish on a bigger plot of land his group received from the government.
    He also is seeking to secure the funds -- about $9,000 -- to buy a cold storage facility that would help Jackson, Johnson and others in the group to process the food they grow and to sell at markets farther from home. The team is talking to supermarkets in Dar es Salaam about buying their organic products from them directly.
    In Bishagazi's vision, these community farms would spread nationwide -- every place that female genital mutilation is proving hard to stop -- so that those who cut girls and families who turn to the practice for financial sustenance could find another way to survive.
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    "We have realized when women don't have economic power it is very easy to conduct gender-based violence," Bishagazi says. "My dream is to end FGM once and for all."
    For everyone who cares about building stronger, safer and more stable communities that grow more prosperous because they reap the talents of all their members -- boys and girls -- Bishagazi's dream matters a great deal. And it's one in which we all have a stake.