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Female Genital Mutilation: How are African women fighting for its eradication?

Every year, millions of girls and women across the world are subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Supported by ancient traditions, the cut is a mark of the social control over women’s bodies and behaviour. The practice has harmful consequences for women’s health, ranging from kidney infection, complications in the childbirth and fatal bleeding to psychological damages which bears negative consequence for a lifetime.

Italian journalist Emanuela Zuccalà, along with a multi-disciplinary team, has explored this sensitive issue in the UNCUT project. Through the combination of different media formats, the journalistic production exposes the problem from a variety of perspectives and presents three successful women-led community initiatives against FGM. Emanuela shared with us her impressions of reporting from three African countries and the experience of working with innovative storytelling techniques.

© Simona Ghizzoni

The practice of genital mutilation is concentrated, aside from Yemen, Iraq and Indonesia, in 27 countries in Africa. Why did you choose Kenya, Somaliland and Ethiopia?

It was very difficult to choose, but at the end we succeeded in setting precise criteria.

Somaliland is a very interesting case. It has the same culture, traditions and religion as Somalia, and together the two countries are considered to be the world’s capital of FGM with the highest FGM prevalence in the world, where as much as 98% of women undergo genital mutilation. However, since Somalia is confronted with war it would have been too dangerous to report from there, so we chose Somaliland instead to try and understand the societal background of the area.

Kenya is interesting for a different reason: it is considered one of the champions in Sub-Saharan Africa in the fight against FGM. Its national prevalence, according to the latest Unicef statistics released in February 2016, dropped from 27% to 21%. Kenya has passed two laws against FGM, in 2001 and 2011; it has a National Commission dedicated to this issue and a team of specialized prosecutors. But despite this impressive job against FGM, there are some ethnics groups who still consider it absolutely necessary for the passage of a girl to womanhood.

Finally, Ethiopia, being a predominantly Christian country with a national prevalence of 74%, is a good example to dismiss stereotypes that portray FGM as a Muslim issue. FGM is not related to Muslim religion at all. It is spread out in all kinds of religions, also among Christians.

© Simona Ghizzoni

In your project you tell the stories of three successful movements against FGM. How did you select them? Why did you choose to focus on positive examples?

We chose the three initiatives together with our partner in the project, the NGO ActionAid. We have worked together extensively in the past, in countries like Cambodia, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They support local initiatives and local NGOs and do not work with a superior approach that only we, the Westerners, can bring the right aid to development. Instead, they value and work with local initiatives and local knowledge. For UNCUT we chose strong women community groups who are doing a great job within their societies. They all have in common a sincere commitment to the fight against FGM. In Somaliland they have been active on this issue since the 70s and they know exactly how to work in their environments. It is very important to know these initiatives and to try to empower them. We chose a positive approach because, similar to Journalism Grants’ main aim, we do not only want to show the problem and the tragic consequences of FGM on the women’s health, education, participation in social life, but also want to highlight that women are fighting and succeeding, step by step, in solving the problem.

In spite of the UN resolution prohibiting FGM practices and laws banning the procedure in most African countries, it is still widespread in rural areas. From your perspective, could you notice a change of mentality in the younger generation?

Inside one country, you have different ethnic groups, different religions and unequal education opportunities. It is a very complicated issue. The latest Unicef data, for instance, revealed a decrease of prevalence in certain countries. The most important change took place in Egypt, the country with the highest total number of women who have undergone FGM in Africa (27.2 million). The prevalence declined from 91% to 87% there. It is still high, but it is decreasing. In Kenya, it is decreasing as well. Younger generations are abandoning this practice, but it is still very rooted in the mentality of the people, especially in remote areas. In some countries of West Africa, for instance, as Sierra Leone and Liberia, even a lot of women support the practice because it is linked to the initiation to women’s secret societies.

© Simona Ghizzoni

Why did you choose to tell this story in the form of a multimedia web documentary?

We wanted to take the opportunity offered by the IDR grant programme to try and go beyond the traditional journalistic formats. It was challenging as it was the first time that my team and I produced a web documentary. We tried to find a format that would be easy for the readers, but also as complex as the issue required. It was a real challenge and, at the end, we learned a lot. I think this is one of the most positive aspects of this project. We are enriched now. Additionally, the analytics data shows that we had a lot of young readers. I think that the form of the web documentary can better engage young people, something that traditional media is not so good at anymore. A web doc allows you to choose your own time and way to get inside the reading/watching experience. In Uncut, you can read from the beginning to the end simply scrolling down (and it will take around one hour and a half) or you can choose from the menu on the right which chapter you prefer, jumping from one to another. In this way, it’s the readers to build their own user experience.

Did you have a certain user in mind when making the web documentary?

Yes. This is a story addressed first of all to women of course, but not only. When I speak, write or even think about my stories I do so from the perspective of women. I have worked for a long time for a women's magazine and I have developed a strong bond with a women audience. With the webdoc, it was the same. As other very sensitive topics (such as violence against women, or maternal mortality), I think FGM is a very engaging issue for every woman because it touches you inside. Even if we have completely different backgrounds, if we live in opposite points of the world, we have similar feelings about our womanhood and sexuality.

© Simona Ghizzoni

Data is also a big part of your story. Through interactive maps of Africa and Europe, readers can have access to more information about FGM. How was the process of collecting data and how did data help you to tell the story?

For Africa, we decided to use the Unicef and the World Health Organisation surveys because they collect all the national data of Africa taken from the Demographic Health Surveys. For Europe, it was more complicated because there’s no research about all the European countries with the same criteria. Every country has its own criteria of gathering data on FGM, so we used two reports issued by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), the only two that exist at a EU level on this issue.

I have been working as journalist for almost 20 years and, since the beginning, when we still used to send our articles to the media via fax, we were aware of the centrality of data for telling compelling stories. Now we call it data journalism and it is enriched by sophisticated tools and interactive data visualisations that of course we did not have 15 or ten years ago. In this case, choosing a certain kind of data visualization, allows the reader to have an easier and more engaging way of understanding the main findings. Such as, for instance, that Somalia has the highest FGM prevalence in the world (98%) among women; that Egypt and Ethiopia have the highest number of victims (27.2 million and 23.8 respectively); that Type III, known as infibulation, is spread only in 15 countries while Type II (the cutting of the genitalia without the stitching) is almost universal in the 27 considered African countries; that the higher the education level of women, the lower the FGM prevalence.

Is the data available for others to use or build on it?

Yes, of course, as long as they quote the source. We want and hope that the data and the project can be useful also to others working on this issue. In fact, we are updating the data once a month and will continue doing so as long as possible.

What were the main challenges you encountered during the fieldwork?

For the UNCUT project I travelled once again with photographer Simona Ghizzoni. Our main goal when we are in the field is to connect with the people. While in Kenya that was easy as we had sufficient contact ahead of our visit. In Somaliland however we found that women were reluctant to talk about FGM. This topic is surrounded by strong taboos and in this country the social control on women is very strong. It was very difficult to find women who would accept to speak in front of the camera about their personal experience. We stayed longer in the field and in the end they opened up and spoke frankly about terrible things that happened to them. In Ethiopia it was mainly difficult because of the roads and terrible travel conditions. We did not have electricity, which was important for our work as we had to charge our equipment for shooting videos and photos.

Why did you and the photographer choose to work with black and white colours?

We started with Somaliland, where we decided to use the black and white. It was Simona’s first time in Sub-Saharan Africa and she was looking for a new photographic language. For photography especially it is very easy to produce stereotyped images of Africa. It is also perhaps slightly more difficult to shoot pictures in Africa because of the brighter light. So Simona thought that the black and white could give a key to look directly at the inner feelings of the women as simply women, not necessarily as African women. In Kenya however, Simona shot both black and white and colour photos. This is because in Kenya we met many young girls whose stories touched us deeply and we decided colour photos could give a warmer vision of the environment, the people and the feelings.

© Simona Ghizzoni

What feedback did you receive so far to your project?

In Italy, for instance, the department for equal opportunity, a governmental institution, is publishing an ebook about FGM and they are using a part of our work as explanatory background on FGM. In Milan, I met Sadia Abdi, a long-time activist against FGM and the director of ActionAid in Somaliland. She was very satisfied to see the videos and the entire result of our work. They are considering to use it for their advocacy and educational programs. The series of photos from Kenya has been shortlisted by the Sony World Photography Award, one of the most important photo prizes. Our photos will be exhibited in London and next summer also in Italy. We had some contacts to transform Uncut in a photographic book and in a documentary movie.

Now that you can analyse the final product as a whole, would you change any aspect of it?

Maybe in Kenya I would have focused only on one story. We had these two stories in two different areas, Kajiado and West Pokot, and we fell in love with both of them, so we decided to cover both. For us to have a symmetry with the other countries, it could have been better to choose just one. Also next time we could choose one or two countries instead of three and rather stay longer in these places because the most difficult part in the field was not having enough time. You are constantly in situations where you are in a hurry or you meet a lot of people at the same time and they are there for only one or two hours. Many things could be improved, but at the end we reached the result we wanted to reach, especially with the web documentary and the data journalism part, and we are very happy about that.

© Simona Ghizzoni

What do you expect to achieve with the UNCUT project?

First, our goal is to raise awareness on this issue. I don’t know if we succeeded, but we managed to publish in many media and in different languages. We did so by talking about this problem in a very respectful way for the women. It is a harmful practice, we all agree it has to be abolished. At the same time, it is very complicated to talk about it in the right way as it is part of these women’s cultures. Even immigrant women who live in Europe and want to give up this tradition feel divided on the issue. That’s why we chose not to take pictures or videos of the rituals, although we had the opportunity to do so. We wanted to explain the problem in a very British way, I would say: no sensationalism, no victimisation, but a storytelling of how African women are fighting against FGM.

Second, we want to communicate the message that FGM is not just a foreign issue. That is why we inserted a chapter about Europe. FGM does not concern only far away and exotic societies. It is a problem affecting our societies as well, especially at times when we have many immigrants.

Lastly, the grant programme was really a wonderful opportunity because it brings to the forefront different kind of stories and not solely the stories of Africa at war, Africa in poverty, or Africans as victims. The UNCUT story also wanted to break a stereotype and convey that while, we may perceive some people as victims, in fact they are working to solve their own problems. We wanted to contribute to this change of mentality by opening this topic to a broader discussion.

You mention in the project that you will continue the investigation in Europe, approaching cases of FGM among immigrants communities. How do you plan to do that?

We have applied for another grant and we will have the answer at the end of this year. Our partner, ActionAid, won a grant from the European Commission to work on FGM matters in Europe. We already found some countries in Europe that in our opinion are quite interesting to further explore. For instance, countries where the Somali communities are bigger and so the problem of FGM is bigger as well. We would also like to work in Italy where FGM is still carried out clandestinely in some immigrant communities.

© Simona Ghizzoni

An interview by Sarita Reed, intern at the European Journalism Centre. Sarita graduated in journalism at UFRGS, in Brazil, and is currently a Master student in Media Culture at Maastricht University.

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