Recently when checking in with the Obama Foundation, we learned that they are highlighting the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP) and its work in helping global communities end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). To find our more about how this work takes place, Philanthropy Women spoke with Amy Maglio, Founder of WGEP. Maglio founded WGEP over 14 years ago after she was a peace corp volunteer in Senegal, where she lived for three years.
“When I got back from Senegal, I thought about all the girls I knew who weren’t in school,” said Maglio. She was particularly concerned with the reasons that girls weren’t going to school, and wanted to find more ways to ensure that girls got into school and stayed in school in Senegal. Maglio began partnering with local community-based organizations in Senegal that were already working on these questions. Local organizers in Senegal identified that girls ended their education often because of healthy, safety, and cultural issues.
About ten years ago, WGEP started working in Kenya and found a partner organization there that developed the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP) program. From leaders there, Maglio said she gained a deeper understanding of how girls generally drop out of school and begin a family shortly after going through FGM.
ARP is slowly gaining traction in Kenya, with a 2014 Demographic Health Survey reporting that in some regions of the country, rates of female circumcision have dropped from 32% in 2003 to 21% in 2014. Other regions still have much higher rates, such as 92% of Kisii women and girls who are still subject to the practice, and 78% of Maasai women.
(ARP) is one answer to ending FGM, where girls participate in ceremonies that affirm their human rights to life, education, and health, as well as their cultural rights, many of which align with traditional cultural values of that particular community.
“We give girls the opportunity to transition into adulthood without the cutting,” said Maglio. “In Kenya we also do scholarships, tutoring, violence prevention, and leadership, but the alternative rite of passage is a critical piece that helps girls stay in school.”
Given the popularity of ARP for girls, WGEP has also started an alternative rite of passage for boys. “We advocate for safe circumcision, and while we have them there, we give them all the same health and reproductive education workshops that we give the girls.”
Maglio stressed the need for more funders to recognize the centrality of the issue of FGM in global gender equality work. “We have had a lot of support because our program is holistic and we address all of the issues of why girls aren’t going to school. A number of women donors and family foundations have supported us for a long time.” In addition, last year WGEP received funding from Dining for Women, an organization in the U.S. that helps women pool donations to address global gender issues.
One donor who has been a passionate long-time supporter of WGEP is Suzanne Kanter. “I have been so impressed with Amy, who understands the complexities of this issue and takes a nuanced approach to changing attitudes about FGM in Kenya in a real and lasting manner. Her work has helped thousands of girls stay healthy and in school.”
Kanter’s advice for other funders who want to make headway on this issue is to seek out organizations like WGEP that take a collaborative approach to changing FGM attitudes and practices, and who have a proven track record of success.
Another key aspect that Kanter said funders should look for is whether the organization learns from their experiences and thinks creatively about how to improve their programming and effectiveness. “WGEP avoids a top-down approach to its FGM work. In creating and building the Alternative Rite of Passage program, Amy has collaborated with high-caliber Kenyan partners, who have a deep understanding of local culture, customs, and needs.”
That process of building trust doesn’t happen overnight, stressed Kanter. “Amy has built WGEP’s program slowly, gaining the trust of girls, mothers and decision-makers in the villages the organization is serving, and expanding into new villages as word spreads about the program and its benefits.”
Maglio, and other leaders in the movement for gender equality globally, think it’s time for larger foundations and institutions to step up and add to the momentum to end FGM. “I think there is still difficulty with larger institutions and funders staying away from FGM,” said Maglio.
The reason, she speculates, is the deeply entrenched nature of cultural practices like FGM, and how hard it is to help communities shift to a new way of thinking and behaving. ” It’s such a deeply rooted tradition. “It is not something you can change overnight, it is a long term process.'”
The Obama Foundation lending support to WGEP may be critical to boosting the issue into the mainstream, as it represents a breakthrough into a broader level of funding and message dissemination capacity. Maglio is feeling particularly grateful for that connection these days, as she continues her work.
Learn more about WGEP and Amy Maglio on the organization’s website.