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Empowerment Self-Defense: A Vital Tool against Female Genital Mutilation Reflecting on the intersection between Empowering Self-Defense (ESD) and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Dr. Costly Aderibigbe-Saba

I want to share Amina's story, a 14-year-old girl in Sierra Leone facing the threat of FGM. Amina, like many girls in her community, is told that FGM is a cultural rite of passage. Despite knowing its dangers firsthand through her friend's tragic experience who recently died from FGM complications, Amina feels powerless in a community where this practice is normalized.

"FGM, is characterized by the partial or total cutting of female external genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is an outright violation of the fundamental human rights of women and girls. It symbolizes a societal narrative where girls are denied agency over their bodies, lives, and decisions, perpetuating the notion that their validity hinges on male approval. FGM thus represents one of the most extreme forms of violence against women and girls.

Empowerment Self-Defense, on the other hand, serves as a vital tool in protecting individuals, irrespective of gender, from various forms of violence. Having undergone ESD training myself, I've experienced firsthand how it equips individuals to assess different situations, distinguishing between non-harmful and dangerous situations swiftly.

For Amina, who was in a dangerous situation such as facing the threat of FGM, ESD could have provided her with the knowledge and confidence to seek help and escape from harm. ESD encompasses a broad range of skills beyond physical combat; it emphasizes the ability to analyze situations, make informed decisions, and know where and how to access assistance promptly. It defeats the feeling and condition of being powerless.

The third principle of ESD, "Run," teaches about the importance of recognizing when fleeing is the most prudent course of action, emphasizing that it's not a sign of weakness but of strength and survival instinct. Amina could have potentially run to safety, whether it be a safe home, police custody, or other law enforcement agencies, or to human rights activists. 

“Our safety lies in our ability to rapidly access a situation, know what to do and have the guts to do it- this is the true definition of strength." - Costly Aderibigbe-Saba.

Another crucial aspect of self-defense (4th principle of ESD) is the principle of "fight." While fighting in ESD includes using physical skills to protect oneself, it also encompasses the right to shout with maximum strength to get help (2nd principle of ESD). Usually, in the process of performing FGM, a girl is being held against her will by older adults. She is told not to shout, and her mouth is sealed before pinning her down to butcher her genitals with sharp instruments like broken bottles, thorns, razor blades, or sharp traditional mini axes. If empowered with ESD, Amina could have asserted her rights and fought for her freedom from such a violation, and perhaps, her voice could have also brought help to her. Violence is a spectrum! If Amina had undergone FGM, she would have lost her self-esteem and confidence. Also, she may be married off early and subjected to domestic, sexual, and physical violence.

Every woman and girl at risk of FGM or any form of violence must be empowered with ESD skills as a fundamental human right. 200 million survivors of FGM, like myself, can play a vital role by engaging the 5th principle of ESD which is the “Tell” principle. By sharing our stories, we create safer communities and help accelerate the abandonment of FGM in communities.


As someone who is an FGM survivor and is trained as a women’s level 1 ESD instructor, I've actively applied ESD principles in empowering over 200 communities on the harmful effects of FGM by sharing my story through the NGO I founded- Value Female Network Africa, supported by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Program on the Elimination of FGM. We have reached over 7,000 adolescent girls through an innovative annual adolescent boot camp in Nigeria. With the support of ESD Global, we have equipped over 4,000 girls with ESD skills. Also, we have worked tirelessly to create safe spaces in over 90 schools and provide safety to vulnerable girls, ensuring that no girl is denied the opportunity to be free from harm.

Through my work and advocacy, I've seen how ESD can transform communities, equipping girls like Amina in Nigeria with ESD knowledge to reclaim their right to safety and autonomy.

"No girl should be denied the opportunity to be free from harm because “every girl is costly."

About Dr. Costly Aderibigbe-Saba

Costly is the Executive Secretary of the Global Youth Consortium against FGM, a movement of over 3,000 young people from more than 61 countries working to achieve a world free of FGM. She is also the founder of a nongovernmental organization that works across 14 states in Nigeria- Value Female Network Africa.

She is a medical doctor, a survivor of FGM, and an award-winning anti-FGM activist who continues to work to ensure that "Every Girl is Costly."

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