The Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists Confronting Female Genital Mutilation exhibition has been shown many times in Germany; and now the curator, Dr Tobe Levin, has also arranged two evenings of events in Oxford UK. In my contribution I spoke about art as activism, and on prospects for developing a greater public concern to achieve eradication – only when public pressure is applied to high levels of governance will real progress be made. These are my thoughts on art and advocacy:
In a past life I was a senior lecturer in health and social care; and throughout my professional career I have always brought to bear my training as a sociologist. The primary prism through which I perceive almost all welfare matters is therefore that which identifies power and influence. What are the factors which enable some people to have a big say in everything that happens, whilst others have virtually no say at all?
People and power
This question is especially important in situations where those with power and influence have the capacity to protect or harm vulnerable people – in this case, women and girls who may be subject to female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is such a horrible idea that most of us try our best not to think about it. We would like it to stop, but have little idea of how we can make that happen; and that reluctance to face up to the reality is why the work of artists – and in particular artists with direct knowledge or experience of FGM – is so critical.
Modes of conceptualisation
Art in all its forms we can help us to conceptualise FGM in a different and more direct way. We can acknowledge the horror whilst also engaging empathy and a determination to ‘do something’ to stop it. This raised level of concern is what exhibitions such as the ones organised by Tobe Levin (for more about the exhibitions see also here), and of people such as the survivor and documentary photographer Aida Silvestri (more here) can deliver.
Real change to stop embedded behaviours requires consistent, authoritative action by people in high places. That is why the ‘End FGM’ message must be repeated time after time – which, in turn, requires enough ‘ordinary’ people (including perhaps some from previously practising communities) to be demanding that the harmful embedded behaviour be stopped. It’s a matter of hearts and minds together, and that’s where the arts can offer something extra to fuel public demands for FGM to become history.
Coping with difficult topics
We already know that FGM is wrong; but to stop it requires human engagement as well as logical thought. Further, making FGM history also requires co-ordinated investments of resources which only those in positions of power can assign.
Using art as a medium for the message, we can hope to reach many people who might otherwise find the topic of FGM ‘too difficult’ to contemplate; there is here scope to align with other campaigners and lobbyists – the lawyers, medics, community activists – who take a more overtly knowing approach.
Once we have a critical mass of public demand for action, we can expect those at the highest levels of decision-making and governance to deliver.
FGM has to stop. There must be no more passing of the buck, no more issuing of guidelines without considered top-down allocation of resources and roles to the many different individuals and organisations involved. Someone at senior national level needs to accept public responsibility and accountability for actually bringing FGM (and other harmful practices) to an end.
My belief is that a named government minister must accept clear, accountable responsibility for ensuring FGM stops. I also believe that the best overarching methodology for eradicating FGM is via Public Health, that part of public service provision where an emphasis on well-being and a multitude of modes of engagement is conjoined strategically in policy delivery with the formalities of enforcement.
There are 4 Es in FGM eradication: engagement, education, enforcement and economics.
Hearts and minds? Art and science? The reality, in all our interests, of shaping complex human behaviour for the better, demands them all.
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Hilary Burrage is author of
ERADICATING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (Ashgate/Routledge 2015)
FEMALE MUTILATION (New Holland Publishers 2016)