Talking about FGM

Rachel Krys, Head of Media & Communications at Equally Ours, blogs on how we talk about the issues we care about:

The way we talk about the issues we care about has an enormous impact on whether the problems can be solved. I work in communications, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? But recently I have been struck once again by the importance of good communications and framing. This is not about dashing off a quick press release describing the work we do; carefully framing an issue, setting it into a wider context and mapping out the solutions from the start is the real priority.

Last week The Girl Generation was launched, an “Africa-led”, internationally supported campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM) in one generation. This campaign is rooted in the communities where it is happening every day and it is necessarily ambitious in its aim.

I only heard about FGM for the first time a couple of years ago. As a white woman living in Britain, it wasn’t talked about amongst my friends even when many other issues facing women were. Yet this extreme form of violence against women and girls was happening all over the world, and close to home.

Once I started to hear about FGM, it was the brutality and horror of the practice which caught my attention. The descriptions of children being “dragged into fields”, “held down on bloody tables”, “restrained”, “gagged” and “butchered” horrified me, and many others. It was impossible to ignore.

But my horror isn’t enough. In Egypt today, where many women and girls are still subjected to FGM, it is often carried out by doctors rather than traditional ‘circumcisers’. With clean instruments and pain relief. Now is some of the raw horror taken away, both for the families who continue the practice and for me as an observer? If FGM is framed as an out-of-date cultural practice, then you could come to the conclusion that this is a neat solution – “carry on if you must, but sanitise it to reduce my horror.” And remember, it was the way FGM is was carried out, not the causes and implications of it, out which brought it my attention in the first place.

So when Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, was on Woman’s Hour last week, what she said challenged the way I think about FGM. Of course it isn’t the way it is done, it is the fact that it is done which is the problem for women and girls. The status of women and girls in society and the violence that controls them are the real problems. Until FGM was framed as a form of violence against women and girls and put into that wider context, it could be seen as a brutal tradition which will naturally die out. Making this a women’s human rights issue connects it to women across the world, across ethnic and religious differences.

For campaigners, telling the story which gets most people to stop and listen is an irresistible temptation. But as the anti-poverty campaigners have found, awareness is never enough. It encourages us to tackle symptoms rather than causes. It leaves deep-rooted problems untouched. The FGM campaign has shown us that it is not enough to horrify. Our horror detaches us and separates us from the women and girls who experience abuse, painting those communities as barbaric and unsophisticated. FGM is about control of women. Its roots are in a deep fear of women’s sexuality and power. Talking about women’s human rights – their right to equality, to autonomy, to bodily integrity, to health frames FGM as counter to all of these things. The horror is put into context and we can better see the solutions.

The way we talk about the issues we’re working on, the way we frame the problems and solutions, is crucial to achieving our long-term goals. Telling the stories is important, then connecting them with big issues people already know and care about is the next step.