HPC Fellow: Hannelore Van Bavel, Tostan

Hannelore Van Bavel is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with Tostan, an international organization that empowers African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. Hannelore works with Tostan to evaluate the organization’s impact on the practice of female genital cutting. In her blog, she reflects upon this work and upon the dialogue of “victimhood.”

 Hannelore is currently a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and a SOAS Research Studentship holder. Her research project focuses on the construction and diffusion of discourses on female genital cutting.

Culture: A Source for Change, Not a Tool of Oppression

By: Hannelore Van Bavel

I became interested in discourses on Africa, and African women in particular, through explorations of gender, race, and colonial thought. I was particularly influenced by the article Under Western Eyes, in which author Chandra Mohanty criticizes how feminist development scholarship often reinforces the idea of women in the Global south as passive victims of culture.

That interest in dialogue on the “victimhood” of women led to research on the concept of agency among minor sex workers in Tanzania for my master’s in Sociology. In Tanzania, I befriended a fellow student who is the co-founder of a civil society organization for his ethnic group, the Maasai. When he heard I was to start a second master’s in Gender and Diversity, he suggested I focus on female genital cutting (FGC).

Hannelore participated in community wellbeing training at the Tostan training Centre with participants from east Africa who work on FGC and/or child marriage in their counties.

I was initially hesitant. FGC seemed to me to be the embodiment of a discourse that I had come to find so problematic: African women oppressed by their culture in need of saving by outsiders. My master’s thesis grappled with questions of how FGC is understood, discussed and approached: it became a critique of how outsider interference, when culturally insensitive and ignorant of the complexities of FGC, can cause a backlash and undermine indigenous efforts to change the practice.

My PhD project allows me to continue exploring the importance of discourses on FGC. Tostan is central to it, because of the important influence Tostan has had and continues to have on the sector’s understanding of female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C). I participated in Tostan’s 10-day training on community wellbeing: a unique opportunity to gain insight on Tostan’s work and history. I am very grateful that the Hilton Prize Coalition fellowship now offers me the opportunity to obtain an even deeper understanding of Tostan.

Unlike many other organizations, Tostan does not focus on FGC as a single issue to tackle, but supports wider community empowerment through education. The organization encourages communities to envision their ideal future and believes that they have the capacity to reach their self-defined goals. Rather than coercing communities to give up FGC, they empower communities through education and create opportunities for dialogue about FGC and other issues.

Tostan’s approach thus draws from a very different narrative than the African-women-are-victims discourse: there is no longer a victimized women versus oppressive men binary; culture becomes a source for change rather than a tool of oppression; and communities do not need saving by outsiders because they know best what they want and how to get there.

This approach has been recognized internationally for its effectiveness in ending FGC. My fellowship with Tostan allows me to dive deeper into how Tostan’s effectiveness is measured and what Tostan can teach to the sector.

There is a general lack of quality evaluations for FGC interventions. Two literature reviews of existing FGC program evaluations came up with only 16 studies. Within that general paucity of literature, Tostan does very well, with 25% of the identified quality evaluations being evaluations of Tostan’s program.

Another challenge to the FGC sector is the perception of what constitutes quality when it comes to evaluating FGC programs. Randomized controlled trials (RCT) are often considered the gold standard in the development sector. RCT typically have only one (or a few) outcome variable(s). In the case of measuring the impact of FGC programs, prevalence of FGC would be the logical outcome variable. However, women’s cutting status cannot ethically or practically be observed, and so data are based on self-reporting. It is unclear how reliable self-reporting is. Is an RCT, which is very expensive, the best use of resources?  Particularly when it results in only one (or a few) outcomes, of which the reliability is unclear?

Through 21 years of learning – from communities first, but also from academic research – Tostan has come to a complex understanding of how FGC functions as social norm. Such complexity cannot be captured with a single outcome variable. While Tostan leads in terms of evaluating its program according to the existing gold standards of program evaluation, I believe it has an ever bigger leadership role to play in challenging how change related to FGC can be captured. Tostan has been working on exciting approaches based on social norm theory. Central to this approach is a thorough understanding of the societies, in which Tostan is active, feedback from the people who participate in the program, and a deep respect for participating communities. I believe that the FGC sector and the wider development sector have a lot to gain by replacing positivistic evaluation methods, which believe that the social is objective and measurable, by more constructivist methods that acknowledge the importance of context and the centrality of humans as change makers.

About The Hilton Prize Coalition

The  Hilton Prize Coalition  is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the  Fellows Program, the  Collaborative Models Program  and the  Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat,  Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit  prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact  prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow  the Hilton Prize Coalition on  Twitter and  LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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