16 October 2013

Navigating the world of publicity: a challenge for anti-FGM campaigners

Guest blog by Marianna Ryan.

28 Too Many are pleased to share this blog, written by Marianna Ryan, as our contribution to the global conversation on human rights which is at the heart of Blog Action Day 2013. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is an extreme form of violence against women and girls and a recognised breach of their human rights. It is estimated that globally 30 million girls are at risk of FGM each year and over 120 million women and girls have had FGM.

In this blog Marianna discusses the challenges faced by campaigners in communicating and engaging audiences whilst staying true to their values and respecting the causes they represent. This is a particularly difficult for anti-FGM and other campaigners who want to promote respect for human rights and protect the dignity of those affected by violations of their rights whilst dealing with very sensitive issues which can easily lead to shocking messages.


Navigating the world of publicity: a challenge for anti-FGM campaigners

Closely following the progress of the anti-FGM campaign over the past year whilst working for a development-focused public relations consultancy has prompted me to reflect regularly on the extent to which the competitive world of publicity can be reconciled with the campaign. How can the anti-FGM community effectively disseminate its message to the general public without resorting to sensationalism and ‘shock tactics’? Can the age-old adage of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ - a crutch regularly relied upon by the proponents of controversial campaigns - be applied to an issue as traditionally taboo and culturally sensitive as FGM? 

Simply put, the answer is ‘no’. Shock tactics within advertising have a long history of controversy, which broadly derives from their bold attempt to elicit attention by essentially jolting consumers. In the competitive and increasingly saturated market, companies now regularly carve out controversial advertisements which shock, and at times even distress their audience, as a means of differentiating themselves from competitors. Consequences at times include the perpetuation of social stereotypes, and the exploitation of serious issues for the sake of social gain– but the perceived benefit of an elevated profile regularly takes precedence over any moral concerns. Moreover, these techniques of communication are regularly defended within the industry as a necessary means of capturing the attention of today’s savvy, advertising-literate consumers. 

Within the non-profit sector, such tactics present a real temptation as a means of attracting supporters – and donors – to a chosen cause.  The implications of this environment for values-based non-governmental organisations promoting human rights, however, are not easy to ignore; whilst criticisms of sensationalism and cultural insensitivity may be deemed as unfortunate but necessary side-effects in the world of consumerist advertising, values-based NGOs have difficulty in justifying such tactics in order to promote their cause. Recent history has taught us that ‘good intentions’ can at times seem misguided when the tactics of publicity campaigns are applied within the wider human rights community.  We need not look further than the reaction to Ashton Kutcher’s 2011 ‘Real Men Don’t Buy Girls’ anti-human trafficking campaign, or indeed the now infamous Stop Kony movement, for evidence that sensationalist portrayals of serious human rights issues are not often well-received.

The advertising world’s propensity to ‘shock’ becomes all the more problematic when applied specifically to the anti-FGM campaign. Without sensitivity to the deeply engrained complexities of the issue, campaigns which portray the practice along sensationalist lines may paradoxically serve to undermine the affected girls and women. An incident which illustrates the limitations and dangers of such an approach was a provocative Swedish art installation designed by artist Makode Linde. The ‘Painful Cake’ installation, designed for World Art Day, depicted the caricatured naked  torso of an African woman in the form of a cake, with the artist positioning himself underneath the table so as to create the impression that the depicted woman was still alive. To signify the act of mutilation, the cake was cut around the genital area, revealing a blood-coloured sponge interior. The installation was particularly provocative as the Swedish minister of culture Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth took part in the ceremonious cutting of the cake- and images were circulated widely of the smiling, clapping faces surrounding the mutilated woman. Regardless of the artist’s exact intentions, this ceremony was undoubtedly a shock tactic. Stunt artwork such as this illustrates the non-communication intrinsic to such a ‘shocking’ approach, which in this instance amounts to the objectification of the victim: by showing the African woman as a caricature, she is de-humanized and reduced to a sum of her (mutilated) body parts. 

The Kirira Foundation’s 2012 campaign was similarly controversial for its reductionism. The Foundation sought to raise awareness on FGM through a series of dramatic images depicting women as stony statues being held down by a male aggressors, accompanied by the tag line “Every day over 6,000 women all over the world are condemned to feel nothing”. Commentators criticised the inherent reductionism of the campaign: why, for example, were men depicted as the sole perpetrators of the violation, when women are often the main advocates of the procedure? Furthermore, does the message of ‘victimhood’ ultimately detract from the aim of empowering women and girls in affected communities. Online advertising commentators Osocio further call into question the campaign’s literal objectification of women, stating that “in showing the result as a woman who is no longer human […] is disrespectful to the victims. They are more than their genitals. They are more than the ability to orgasm. They are thinking, feeling people with a terrible mutilation.” In this respect, the sensationalism of such a campaign arguably contributes to sensationalism, rather than engaging with the affected communities and providing them a platform to express their opinions. Campaigns which resort to an ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy will do little to encourage the dialogue necessary to ensure that affected girls’ voices are heard.

Aside from the ethical ramifications, the efficacy of sensationalist campaigns should also be called into question. Even if such campaigns raise awareness than the practice of FGM exists, there is no guarantee of behavioural shifts or attitude changes. Many factors contribute to the changes in attitudes, beliefs and practices which extend far beyond a lack of awareness, and these variables require more complex, engaging and interactive approaches than campaigns designed to ‘shock’. The ultimate elimination of the practice will require a change from within the communities who continue to advocate the practice. This requires using culturally appropriate, non-threatening and non-sensationalist channels of communication rather than reverting to media campaigns which do little to inform the public or to invite the affected communities into the dialogue. The communities in which FGM is practiced cannot be treated as a passive receptive entity.

Acknowledging the limitations of such tactics, what options, then, are open to the anti-FGM community? In order to achieve any sustainable impact, it seems that a shift towards more innovative, communicative and collaborative campaigning is the best way forward. Theatre, for example, can be a highly effective means of increasing awareness on FGM in a sensitive and yet effective manner. Earlier this year, BBC Casualty became the first mainstream national drama to feature a story on FGM – bringing the practice to the attention of the general public, whilst crucially according attention to the complexities of the issue – and giving a voice to the affected girls. 

It may be tempting to employ shock tactics for a quick injection of funds or indeed to prompt debate, but the age-old adage of ‘any publicity is good publicity’ cannot be applied in this sensitive arena. We must resist the temptation to sensationalise the cause for the sake of creating short-term ‘shocks’ of interest or funds. The anti-FGM movement does not need ‘shock tactics’ to garner attention; the bottom line is that Female Genital Mutilation is shocking enough in and of itself. As a community, we will not induce this behavioural shift without acknowledging the complex context in which FGM persists. Provoking dialogue and expression will ultimately prove to be the most efficacious means of provoking attitudinal change in affected communities.  I therefore hope that the anti-FGM campaign will continue to employ creativity in its campaigns, through the mediums of drama, arts and crafts - rather than attempting to reduce the complexities of FGM to the size of a billboard. The BBC’s coverage of the issue was a brilliant step in the right direction, and hopefully one which will be emulated going forward. 

28 Too Many is a UK based anti-female genital mutilation charity working to end FGM across Africa and the diaspora communities through:

• Research

• Building community networks

• International advocacy

You can help end this harmful practice and protect the 30 million girls at risk of FGM each year by donating to fund our anti-FGM work, liking our Facebook page or following us on Twitter.