Tonight I chaired a debate about FGM at Rivington Place, London, where documentary photographer Aida Silvestri has an exhibition, Unsterile Clinic, curated by Renee Mussai of Autograph ABP. The topic was Health, Advocacy and Art: A Panel Discussion on Ending FGM with, as speakers, Aida herself, plus Deqa Dirie, Aissa Edon, Emma Boyd, Dianna Nammi and, responding from the audience, Hoda Ali. The event, organised by Ali Eisa, illuminated both what people agreed about FGM, advocacy and art, and what they didn’t.
To start of the evening’s discussion I focused on the excellence of the exhibition itself, and on its contexts as both as an extension of the Girl Summit in 2014 and, even before that, via the collaborations which Autograph ABP have developed with the Hutchins Center at Harvard University. Here’s a summary of what I shared by way of introduction:
Thank your you, Emma and Ali, for setting up this exhibition and event, and warm congratulations, Aida, for creating this collection of compelling and important photographic images. I know we are all looking forward to the discussions with you this evening.
Today is quite a special date. On 22 July 2014 the UK and UNICEF co-hosted the first global Girl Summit, not far from here, in London. The aim of the Summit was to mobilize domestic and international efforts to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM), all within a generation.
For me personally this event brings together three themes:
Firstly, the concern which we all share to promote and celebrate equality, diversity and mutuality in our public and private lives.
Secondly, my personal specific connection with the Hutchins Center at Harvard University, an organisation with which I know Autograph ABP has been long and closely linked. A few years ago I visited the Hutchins Center in my capacity as Chair of the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Foundation, a charitable voluntary association which works with professional musicians and others to promote the legacy of Coleridge-Taylor, born in London in 1875 and widely recognised as Britain’s greatest Black classical composer. So I certainly know first-hand how significant the arts can be in bringing communities together.
And then of course, most importantly of all, my third theme is our shared determination to see the end of FGM, CEFM and other gendered human rights abuses as a matter of great urgency.
My own work on gendered violence and FGM has increasingly become focused on aspects of knowledge and power, and how they are used. Research for my books has convinced me that FGM, CEFM and other gendered violence comprises very fundamentally the ultimate in patriarchy incarnate – the imposition of their will by (some) men, quite literally, on the bodies and minds of women and girls.
This perception has taken me in two different directions:
One is to explore FGM and related issues in terms of economic power, which is at base the ownership and control of resources – including the bodies and minds of women and girls. I suspect that FGM and CEFM comprise one of the most lucrative economic crimes in the world. It is my intention to pursue this largely ignored aspect of gendered violence as big business as diligently as I can.
And then, in contrast to the formality of economics, I have turned also to seek ways to increase awareness of gendered violence across different communities and wider society: and it is surely here that the arts can help to deliver a greater general awareness of these human rights violations. This approach can facilitate both the prevention of these crimes – for such they are, even when perceived as ‘an act of love’ – and the protection of vulnerable girls and women, as people become more conscious of the risks to which they may be exposed.
It is via creative, arts-based activity that we can reach out to everyone in ways which more formal approaches cannot.
And it is for this reason, amongst many others, I am so pleased once more to congratulate Aida Silvestri and her colleagues on the outstanding exhibition in this very room; and also to welcome you, the audience, and our speakers, all of whom bring long experience and deep expertise to the subject of health, advocacy and art in ending FGM and other gendered violence, to this important debate.
The messages I took away from the presentations and debate which followed our introductions are quite complex; and some apply specifically to the issues we were asked to consider (health, advocacy and art), whilst others did not. All are, however, of value as we continue to delve into this difficult topic.
Art as advocacy
Some of those presenting addressed this topic directly and compellingly. Aida took us through her personal experience of creating photographic imagery as a lens via which to explore FGM, and how it had enabled her to move to another place in confronting it. She also spoke about how she has sought to engage those who view her art, inviting us each to push pins into a particular one of the silhouette portraits, which thereby changes every day, drawing us into her imagery as we place the pins.
Emma likewise told us how she had been invited with colleagues to create a short animated film, Needlecraft, to emphasise the risk of FGM to which little girls in some places are exposed. This award-winning animation begins with images of innocent childhood which rapidly recede as the grim truth of the threat of FGM becomes clear.
And Dianna extended our perceptions of the truth behind the act of FGM itself, sharing her work, which engages various media, on the connections between FGM and other human rights abuses such as child marriage.
FGM and direct narrative
Other panel members, some themselves survivors and all of them health / caring professionals, took a different approach, choosing to speak directly of their own experience, and to share aspects of the work they do with women who come to them for help and advice. Deqa (whom Aida came to know whilst attending the African Well Women Clinic) and Aissa offered us insights into their approach when supporting women with FGM, and stressed the need to ensure there are adequate resources – not yet forthcoming – for this important work.
Hoda, as invited first respondent to the speakers from the floor, emphasised the demand that those who speak out about their personal FGM experience to be perceived as ‘survivors’, whole people rather than ‘victims’; survivors are not defined by FGM, except in the sense that they have knowledge of it and want to take every opportunity to defy it. In her experience parents see FGM as a generous act of love.
In the context of the evening’s debate about ‘art and advocacy’, perhaps the perspective of these survivors and health professionals amounts to advocacy via narrative.
Questions and contributions from the floor (the French system, school nurses and teachers…)
Some of those attending were more familiar with the nature of FGM than others; the health professional panel members provided more information to questioners about what various forms of FGM entail and the impacts it has on women’s and girls’ health and lives.
Other audience members discussed the French system of early years health inspections (which Aissa as a child in Paris did not experience, and which I observed is currently, despite beliefs to the contrary, not compulsory) and whether such a system would work in the UK. The consensus seemed to be that inspection is only appropriate for very young children, when intact status can be noted and followed in the ‘red book’ issued by the infant’s health clinic just after birth.
Allied to issues around inspection was discussion of the role of School Nurses, of which only about one thousand remain in Britain. School Nurses could have a very important part to play in the protection of children from harm, including the prevention of FGM and dealing with other abuse. This is especially so in the context of the current legally required but functionally inadequate mandated reporting procedures which teachers – often very anxious about how they should respond – and others in regulated activity are obliged to observe if they fear a child is at risk.
And then, as frequently happens, there was discussion about the ‘cultural’ aspects of FGM. Those who have experienced it often report that parents intended FGM as a ‘gift’ to enhance their daughters’ adult lives; but it must nonetheless be consigned right now to history. For those from outside traditionally practising communities who have a responsibility to protect children however concepts around culture have been one of the biggest stumbling blocks to confidence about how to proceed. For them the issue needs first to be formulated around the legal context. FGM is a serious crime, whatever its intended rationale, and acknowledging the dignity of the human beings involved, as actors in or victims of the crime, does not excuse failure to protect children or to provide adequate care for those who have experienced it.
A multitude of voices
So what had we learnt as the discussion concluded?
Firstly, the impact of narrative was self-evident. Survivors spoke out about FGM and of the strength they know in themselves as they do so. For some speakers this narrative was presented directly and for others it was interpreted for us through their art – and especially in the context of this discussion visual art.
Secondly, for me at least, the issue of ‘voice’ remains critical. We need people of all sorts never to give up on the demand that children must grow up whole and healthy, unharmed by abuse of any kind. The voice of survivors is fundamentally important; it is they who can most immediately bring the message home.
In such complex matters the voices of people with less directly personal experience are however also critical: clinicians, teachers, social workers and others such as enforcement agents whose responsibility it is to protect and care for children must speak out too. There are many thousands of people who may have just one tightly time-limited opportunity to protect a child at risk of FGM or other abuse. These people need visible, vocal co-professional role models whom they can emulate at a moment’s notice.
How can art and advocacy work for health?
And, finally, we come to the issue around which this event was formulated: art and advocacy in the promotion of health. Slowly, this aspect of challenging FGM is coming to the fore. In traditionally practising nations singing and music have long been elements of eradication programmes; many stories and novels have been written in many parts of the world; several plays and film dramas have now been devised on this theme for production in the UK and elsewhere; and now visual art, by survivors and by other women and men, is also having impact.
It has long been understood that art speaks for itself as a way to communicate the human condition, but more recently we have also made some progress on defining the different voices which must deliver the #EndFGM message. The next step is perhaps to delineate more clearly which groupings of recipients respond most effectively to which voices. In the language of marketing, we need to understand more clearly the segmentation/s of our ‘audience’.
I hope this excellent ‘Health, Advocacy and Art’ event will provoke further attention to the question, which sorts of voice, which sorts of art, have most and best impact where?
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Hilary Burrage is author of
ERADICATING FEMALE GENITAL MUTILATION (Ashgate/Routledge 2015)
FEMALE MUTILATION (New Holland Publishers 2016)