I have just finished watching this film and feel two emotions; inspired and hopeful. The short video tells the story of Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian woman who was subjected to the abhorrent practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) at birth. It was not until she was married off as a young girl and forced to have sex with her husband whom she had never met in a country she had never been to, (the US) that she realised the emotional and physical implications of ‘being cut.’
Over two million women and girls are currently living with the effects of FGM; it is an ancient practice that predates many of the major religions. It is a practice that went unnoticed for many years with an alarming number of women and young girls facing huge health issues as a result. Despite it being a criminal offence in the UK not one prosecution has taken place. During her stint as Home Secretary, Theresa May spent a significant amount of time campaigning on the issue encouraging a tougher stance to be taken against the perpetrators – but with little effect.
Jaha on the other hand, saw incredible success in getting FGM denounced in the Gambia by its President at the time, Goodluck Jonathan. The video shows her journey from the realisation of what had been done to her, to drumming up overwhelming support online to get the Obama Administration to launch a full investigation into the practice. She ran Gambia’s first FGM Youth Conference with attendees including Gambian Government officials, activists and most importantly young women who wanted and needed to know more. A particularly poignant point in the film is where she persuades her father to ban the practice in his household shortly after one of his daughters is born; with four wives and numerous daughters all of whom had been cut, this was no mean feat.
She achieved all of this through education. This was a mammoth task given that many of the women she spoke with – both young and old – held three main misconceptions: that a child could not be delivered to a woman who had not been cut, that FGM was part of the Muslim religion and that a woman’s genitalia would be somehow unclean if the practice wasn’t carried out. Despite this, she did it and not only that, she managed to get the incredibly influential Imam in her community to admit that FGM was a choice, not an act of God.
Which is why I took such an interest in a story from a few weeks ago regarding West Midlands Police who received significant criticism for their claims on Twitter that parents caught practising FGM on their children should not be prosecuted, and that the best course of action was to instead “educate parents”. Numerous MPs and child welfare activists, came out saying this attitude to the issue was “deeply disturbing”. The force stood its ground and went on to state that it would be focusing on “education and safeguarding vulnerable girls”, rather than seeking prosecution in court. It’s an almost impossible conundrum to solve. Do you clamp down on the perpetrators and risk driving victims underground by punishing parents or family members or do you hope that by using the simple tool of education you help to dissuade parents from taking part in this atrocious practice?
A similar mixed reaction was sparked from campaigners, specialists and the public when Forced Marriage was made a criminal offence in 2014. The argument for, was of course that it would act as a deterrent but on the other side of the fence there was very vocal concern that this would drive the abominable practice further underground. It was felt that the ruling would have two outcomes; it would terrify potential victims even more into not coming forward for fear of landing their parents in prison and would make the perpetrators even more vigilant about not being caught.
I spent several years working with the Forced Marriage Unit at the Foreign Office (FCO), educating teachers on how to spot the warning signs of a child who was about to be taken away to be forced into marriage but also with young Asian women who may well have been at risk. What is often overlooked is that you are asking terrified and often very sheltered young women to come forward and potentially end up getting their parents a criminal record. Even before Forced Marriage was criminalised the struggle to get young girls to build up the courage to come forward was significant.
At the time, we devised a campaign based around music channels which we knew the main target audience (young Asian women) were consuming. We used the news and information sections of these sites to disseminate the messaging. Unsurprisingly we also targeted teachers through Facebook adverts and education media, as well as national outlets to get the general public more aware of the issue. But in my view, one of the most important things we did was to desperately encourage those parents thinking of carrying out a Forced Marriage to think again. Not by scaremongering but by clearly explaining the risks if they did. The campaign saw significant success with all the target audiences. This was a campaign centred around educating and informing which is why I loved working on it so much.
Whether you think criminalisation of forced marriage and FGM is the right way forward or not, we have a duty as PR professionals to ensure we are educating communities about such life changing issues in the most effective way possible. It is all too easy for comms people to execute creative and entertaining campaigns which will bring in the coverage – and the acclaim. What’s more important is that those campaigns deliver real impact and that our work leads to actual change among the target group, not just posts and coverage. As an industry we often find ourselves in a strong position able to influence what the public consume. Even more critical with issues as sensitive as this, we have a chance to educate and play some small part in helping to prevent these barbaric practices. We must honour this.
Sarah Skinner, Associate, Barley Communications