At the age of 15, Jaha Dukureh was promised in marriage to a man thirty years older than her. A few years later, she was taken to New York to meet him and get married, but before that could happen, she had to undergo surgery to be able to consummate the union: as an infant, her body had been savagely damaged by the terrifying knives she had faced in Gambia. Like many others before her, including her own half-sister who had died as a result of complications arising from the procedure, Jaha was subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), a “rite of passage” her people believed to be necessary for a woman to be able to marry and participate in sexual intercourse.
Her marriage soon ended and Jaha relocated to Atlanta, where she found a large community of women who had also faced the cut. She did not allow her dreams to end – she wanted a good education, something she bravely fought for and progressed from one school to the next, begging for the opportunity to study. In the end, she not only got the schooling she wanted, but was also given the chance to choose a husband herself.
In 2014, The Guardian began a media campaign against Female Genital Mutilation – commonly known as FGM, a practice which according to Plan International involves “the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons, mostly carried out between infancy and age 15.” The Guardian reporters who had been assigned to the media campaign included Archive Specialist Mary Carson, who met with several survivors of FGM: “It was only after meeting with the victims that we realized that we actually knew nothing about FGM,” Carson said during the International Journalism Festival panel session aptly named “End Female Genital Mutilation: Journalism And Campaigning Together on A Global Scale.”
The team working on the campaign quickly realized that it was up to them as members of the press to divulge the story to the world; after all, not many people knew what FGM actually was, and the horrible damages – both psychological and physical – victims are forced to live with.
How The Press Can Be Involved
The panel discussed the possible task the media and journalists have in the fight to end FGM, and identified three main ones:
- Passing on tools, and training the victims to tell their own stories;
- Learning how to evaluate stories – all the stories have to meet editorial standards;
- Granting platforms for victims to meet activists and well-wishers who can help in their rehabilitation;
Journalists either tell stories to get a wider audience base or make a difference; only when journalists start believing that their stories can bring change to the community can they actually get better involved in the fight against FGM.
The Guardian partnered with change.org to speak up and condemned the horrible practice in a campaign dubbed #EndFGM. According to Elisa Finocchiaro, change.org’s Italian lead, many organizations have used the website to get their campaigns out to the world, and when The Guardian approached them they were excited to get on board. When they started the campaign, Jaha heard about what they were doing and started her own petition in the U.S.: very soon, she had drawn so much attention to herself that they partnered with her, alongside with other survivors from Nigeria and Kenya, to educate people on the dangers of FGM.
Running a Successful Media Campaign
After the success of the campaign, the whole team – now comprising The Guardian, change.org and many survivors – realised they had to go back to the roots of the problem. In Kenya for instance, they worked with over 30 journalists and activists, particularly using visual media such as poster compositions, in order to reach the people in the affected areas.
The only way the message can be passed across and change achieved is when, and if, journalists begin to aim at changing the value structures of the target audience. This is because many might not actually have any idea what the practice is all about and, as the #EndFGM team soon discovered, many villagers did not even know what happened inside their own huts: they ignored the extent of the damages their daughters’ bodies had to endure at the expense of traditions.
According to Jaha, the older generation might not have had a choice, but now the younger generation has an opportunity to end the practice and stop passing it on to the next one.
By identifying all the actors involved, and using a holistic approach – like working with religious leaders and the youth to change their mind sets – journalists are capable to put pressure on the world and cause a ripple effect of change as #EndFGM managed to do in The Gambia where the government passed a rule banning the practice of FGM which had traditionally been accepted as the norm. This, along with working with NGOs, can ensure that girls who do not undergo the knife have a less risk of being marginalized by their societies.
“Everyone in this world has a moral obligation to end FGM. As journalists, you have a moral obligation – it does not matter whether this has ever happened to you or not,” said Jaha during the panel.
According to her it takes a more collective effort to end FGM, and communication is the best tool to use. When she was first approached by The Guardian and change.org to join their campaign, she was scared; she had been retelling her story anonimously, and trying to keep her name out of the spotlight, because some media is known for its less-than-ideal routine: barge in, take a story, leave.
Jaha was scared of being just another story in the media, of once again becoming a victim, but instead of knives she feared those journalists only interested in money and fame.
The press has canonically had a duty not only to tell stories and give survivors platforms to speak from, but also to be there for them: empowering and advising the victims accordingly as well as teaching them to not only stand up for themselves, but also how to lobby for support and open their own doors.
“As journalists, you have a moral obligation to raise awareness, you have a moral obligation to make sure that the world knows – Jaha said – that 200m women are living without their full potential because of something that was forced on them.”
Carson advised her fellow journalists to always do their best to verify the story, do their research then go ahead and put the story out there.
The press is a force to be reckoned with and journalists can join the fight against FGM globally by telling honest stories, and embracing no other motive than to raise awareness and bring positive change to society: the media should be able to hold campaigns without turning into activists, but instead to provide them and the victims with a stable platform to be heard from.