7 July 2016

Communications in the development context - the emergence and impact of global and multi-lateral partnership campaigns and movements combatting FGM in Africa

Research blog by Louise Ferdjani.

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) remains a taboo subject in many places where it is practised and the nature of campaigning on the issue has evolved in response to this over the years.

In her thesis, Kyung Sun Lee (2008, p.14) maps the development of the discourse around FGM.  In the mid-20th century, Western feminists raised objections from a human-rights perspective, but proposals were rejected by the international community due to concerns about impinging on national sovereignty.  This led to campaigners adopting an approach based on the health risks, which was deemed to be more politically neutral, but had the adverse consequence of leading to the medicalisation of FGM (see 28 Too Many’s report).  Today, as the importance of gender equality is being increasingly recognised, many organisations involved in combatting FGM are seeking to address it as part of the wider push for greater female empowerment, while still addressing the health aspects of FGM and modifying their approaches in accordance with the receptiveness of specific communities.

Another key thing that has changed dramatically in the campaign to end FGM is the increasingly joined-up approach that can be seen in the partnerships fostered between international and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local activists and national governments.  These multi-lateral partnerships are also diversifying the methods used in campaigns, from utilising a greater variety of media to widen the reception of this message in communities, to increasing youth engagement through youth groups, to supporting communities committed to change.

This paper aims to look at two such multi-lateral campaigns, to analyse their aims, scope and strategies; evaluate their impact; and assess the role the media can play in tackling FGM.  The two campaigns I will focus on are the joint global-media campaign between the UN and The Guardian, and The Girl Generation, which is funded by the UK Government’s Department For International Development.  I would like to thank Christianne Williamson, the communications manager at The Girl Generation, as much of the information in this paper regarding The Girl Generation came from an interview I conducted with her on the topic.

End FGM Guardian Global Media Campaign

The Guardian Media Group launched its End FGM Guardian Global Media Campaign in Nairobi on 30 October 2014 in collaboration with the UN (UN, 2014), in order to increase coverage of FGM-related news stories both locally and internationally.  The Guardian had already been involved in reporting on FGM and in pursuing anti-FGM media campaigns in the UK, the USA and The Gambia, (United Nations, 2014). However, the Global Media Campaign launch was significant as it marked the first time a partnership had been formed between the UN, an international news company and other news outlets, in order to effect change (Topping, 2014b).  It was also significant because of the wide scope of the campaign.  In addition, the event saw the launch of two joint initiatives backed by The Guardian and the UNFPA to encourage reporting on FGM by journalists working at African news outlets.  The first initiative was the Efua Dorkenoo Pan-African Award for Reportage on FGM, which will be awarded each year to a reporter in Africa who has shown dedication to FGM reporting.  The second was a reporting grant to help support five media outlets in Kenya in their reporting of FGM (UN, 2014).  On 9 February 2016 Diana Kendi Makale, who works at Nation Media Group, became the first winner of the Efua Dorkenoo Award for a poignant film she made with fellow Kenyan journalist Jane Gatwiri, which followed the story of five women fleeing FGM in Western Kenya ( Rahim and O’Kane, 2016).  Having beaten over 90 journalists from 20 different countries to win the award, Kendi will spend one month training at The Guardian’s London head office in the FGM Multimedia and Investigations Unit (UNFPA, 2016).

The Guardian’s UK website has historically used both written articles and short videos to raise awareness and public pressure to end FGM.  It also uses its specific anti-FGM-campaign Twitter account, @GdnEndFGM, to give regular updates on FGM.  The articles published on the website focus on stories in the UK, the US, Kenya, and The Gambia, with content ranging from survivors’ stories, to changes in legislation, to discussion pieces.

Another strand of The Guardian’s Global Media Campaign is spreading journalistic skills and expertise through its End FGM Media Campaign Academy, which was documented in a series of Tweets on The Guardian’s anti-FGM-campaign Twitter account in the autumn of 2015.  The Media Campaign Academy not only equips participants with tools to galvanise anti-FGM campaigns in their communities, but also encourages participants to harness their local knowledge and discuss ideas for which strategies would work best.  Although the delegates develop journalistic skills, such as techniques for interviewing FGM survivors and writing journalistic pieces, journalism is not the sole focus of the Media Campaign Academy.  Participants also attend talks and workshops to help them with campaigning skills (for example, utilising different strategies such as poster and social media campaigns) and educate them about FGM itself – the different types of FGM, the potential medical complications and the prevalence of FGM among different ethnic groups.  A key strength of such events is the social capital built when the delegates themselves meet others motivated to make a change, which, with the help of social media, fosters enduring networks.  The first Media Campaign Academy was held in Kenya in September 2015 (No FGM, 2015), and subsequently in Nigeria in October 2015, and The Gambia in November of the same year.

The Girl Generation’s Together to End FGM movement

The Girl Generation was launched in October 2014 as a five-year programme funded by the UK Department For International Development (DFID).  It is designed to support Africa-led movements against FGM (Topping, 2014b).  The Girl Generation brings together expertise in the field of human rights, communications and management from a number of organisations (Equality Now, 2014) and, as set out in its Strategic Plan, is currently focusing on three countries in the programme’s first roll-out phase, namely Nigeria, The Gambia, and Kenya (The Girl Generation, 2015, p.14).

At the centre of The Girl Generation’s approach is ‘social change communication’.  Indeed, in its online Strategic Plan published on the website on 28 October 2015, The Girl Generation identifies itself as a ‘social change communications initiative’ which seeks to catalyse and amplify African, locally-led movements.  Essentially, ‘social change communications’ refers to media and communications that will best reach the target communities in order to bring about social change.  Such a communications model is a new technique for bringing about change, and its potential outcomes are relatively unknown (Options, 2015).  It is hoped that social change communications can lead to the fast and organic development of a movement for change. 

Furthermore, The Girl Generation takes a subtle approach that focuses on providing background support to activists who are on the ground as well as to its member organisations, and its strategy is formed through discussions with its group of strategic advisors from the countries targeted.  These advisors have invaluable local knowledge and shape plans of action in different countries in order for them to be most effective and to minimise the potential for cultural insensitivity.

Although The Girl Generation’s focus is confined to countries that the DFID programme seeks to target, the movement accepts applications to join its collective of organisations from anywhere in the world.  As a member, an organisation can take advantage of the resources available such as the ‘Do No Harm Guidance Note’ (The Girl Generation, 2014).  The Australian Government is but one example of a body that has used these resources in its approach against FGM.  As noted by Williamson (Ferdjani, 2016), given that Australia helps support a number of anti-FGM initiatives in the South-Asian region, it is easy to see the potential for these strategies and messages to spread and extend further in the future.

It is important not to see the two multi-lateral partnership campaigns discussed in this paper as two campaigns independent and separate from each other.  As UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon said at the launch of The Guardian’s Global Media Campaign to End FGM, the UN also supports and works with The Girl Generation (UN, 2014), as this is central to the strategy to end FGM in Africa.  Another example of many of The Guardian’s and the Girl Generation’s collaborative efforts is a two-day youth summit against FGM co-funded in The Gambia (Topping, 2014a).  Indeed, anti-FGM campaigner Jaha Dukureh is both a strategic advisor for The Girl Generation and the head of The Guardian’s Global Media Campaign.

Although the increase in multi-lateral partnerships would seem to indicate that campaigns are becoming more global and more universal in focus, the opposite is true.  In fact, such partnerships enable organisations to support specific campaigns and strategies tailored to the needs of different countries and of the different communities within them.  This is a key reason why both The Girl Generation and The Guardian have a timed, roll-out method for their campaigns, rather than attempting to target a large number of countries in Africa at once.

A tailored approach and the place for media campaigns

Although the requirement of a tailored approach to individual countries and communities would seem to preclude large-scale media campaigns, there is a place for a range of different media to be used to achieve specific aims.  Written news articles and televised news programmes are key sources of information for Western audiences.  Such media platforms are also present in African countries where FGM is being tackled; however, they are often accessible to wealthier, urban-dwelling inhabitants.  Local radio remains the most effective medium in countries where FGM is practised, especially in rural communities, where it is often the primary, most accessible medium of information for residents.  Other types of media also have their place.  Ban-Ki Moon remarked at his address at the launch event for The Guardian’s Media Campaign that ‘change can happen through sustained media attention’ (United Nations, 2014).

The Gambia is an example of a context where media coverage is useful.  The recent ban on FGM, announced by President Yahya Jammeh on 23 November 2015 (Lyons, 2015), is an important news story, and therefore sustained media coverage of the progress of the law is inevitable.  However, given the country’s geography, with its many rural, hard-to-reach communities, Williamson (Ferdjani, 2016) highlights that local radio is still essential for messages in the news to reach these communities.  Radio is also the most important medium in countries such as Sudan, where there has not been a comparable news story on FGM to that in The Gambia.

Using local radio stations is also effective in countries where prevalence rates, attitudes towards FGM and reasons for taking part in the practice vary greatly in different geographical areas, as well as in different ethnic groups.  For example, according to The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2013 (2014, p.349), prevalence in the North East zone is 2.9%, which is much lower than in South East zone, where that figure is 49.0%, and the states within the respective zones also reflect a similar disparity.  These statistics should, however, ’be used with caution as the definition of FGM/C was not used consistently by interviewers across the region’ (28 Too Many, 2013).  Nevertheless, due to such differences, the data suggests that there is a need for differentiated, local and community-led approaches to tackling FGM.

Many methods can be used on local radio to start conversations about FGM, such as jingles, short public-service anti-FGM adverts, phone-in discussions, youth debates and radio soaps.  While NGOs may be involved with the training of journalists, or providing information resources, it is local people, many of them young people, who produce and play these messages on radio stations.  Empowering young people and fostering connections between them is especially important in places like The Gambia and Nigeria, where campaigners are connected only loosely, and where most of the developments against FGM have occurred by way of legislation rather than popular approval of the change.  To cite an example that demonstrates this, as provided by Williamson (Ferdjani, 2016), The Girl Generation brought together young people working against FGM in Nigeria, grassroots organisations and NGOs to identify what was and was not working in their strategies.  In the discussions, they identified that there was no national campaign nor youth movement to end FGM and not much awareness of the subject, since neither religious leaders nor political leaders wanted to break taboos surrounding it.  As a result, The Girl Generation helped set up a youth forum to disseminate the message to different newspapers and media outlets.

Conclusion: Measuring the success of partnership campaigns and movements

The joined-up nature of these campaigns can make it difficult to measure the individual contribution of each component in bringing about a certain result.  The Gambian president’s announcement of a ban on FGM on 23 November 2015 (Lyons, 2015) is a key example of a result that was attained through the collaboration of a number of stakeholders.  Both The Girl Generation and The Guardian’s Media Campaign were involved in bringing about this success, but the success is arguably more attributable to the long-term achievement of activists in The Gambia such as Jaha Dukureh, the Intra African Committee on Traditional Practices (IAC), and NGOs such as GAMCOTRAP, which had been involved in campaigning against FGM for decades.  Changes in social norms and cultural practices take time because they necessitate concurrent changes of attitude in the majority of the population.

This does not mean that individual organisations have no way to measure their specific impact; indeed, organisations are required to justify decisions over the allocation of funding, as well as help to identify areas requiring increased focus.  In my conversation with the manager of communications at The Girl Generation, it emerged that the programme periodically measured the strength of the movements it helps to catalyse across nine indicators on a 0-10 scale.  Among the chosen indicators were leadership, youth movements, beliefs and myths around FGM, and collaboration.  In addition, movements in individual countries are measured as a whole in terms of how developed they are – dormant, emergent, in place, bureaucratised with public support, and ending once the aims of the movement have been achieved.

Other areas where change and improvement may be measured include the number of organisations involved in combatting FGM or educating people about the effects of FGM.  In addition, changes in the level of press coverage for anti-FGM events is another key factor that can be measured.  For example, The Girl Generation held events in The Gambia and Kenya on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Manipulation on 6 February 2015, and measured the media coverage of the events.  In 2016, the programme has targets to improve on the amount of press coverage, especially in African countries.  Clearly, another key measure of success will be the media coverage of and support for events led by local activists and smaller organisations.  We can already see the impact of such locally-led events which marked the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM 2016 by looking at the wide coverage of them on social media by news outlets and individuals (see for example K24TV , NorthRift News , and Narok Newspaper ).

It is clear that the use of media is very important for documenting progress and raising awareness, but this must come in tandem with a context-sensitive approach, tailored to different communities, if it is to truly aid grassroots movements without adverse side-effects.  It is this combined approach that both The Guardian’s global media campaign and The Girl Generation seek to support as the movement evolves.  The movement against FGM achieved unprecedented success in the year 2015 (Topping, 2016) and hopefully this trend will continue in the years to come.  Moreover, as part of the UN’s renewed development agenda, the 193 Member States of the organisation unanimously adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in September 2015 (UN-DPI, 2015), of which the goal to end FGM by 2030 forms part of Goal 5 on gender equality (see http://www.globalgoals.org/global-goals/gender-equality/).  It will be interesting to examine how the relationship between media partnership campaigns and locally-led movements will evolve over the next 15 years, in the quest to achieve this goal. 


Many thanks to Louise Robertson at 28 Too Many, Caroline Pinder, and Christianne Williamson at The Girl Generation for their help with my research.

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