Female genital mutilation: we can end this practice of silence now

This terrible practice requires silence to continue. When girls name this abuse and speak out against it, they have the power to end it.

The Integrate Bristol campaign held something of a celebration at Bristol City Hall this week, and it has a lot to celebrate in its work against female genital mutilation (FGM). Since the group took on the issue, FGM has moved from something that the victims themselves were unable to speak of to something that is discussed in schools, on Newsnight and in parliament. But the route to acknowledgement, and from there to action, hasn’t been smooth. In 2011, a group of schoolgirls, in association with Integrate, collaborated on a film about FGM called Silent Scream. The girls involved faced such hostility from some quarters that they came very close to giving up completely, and it took a last-ditch private meeting to revive their purpose. 

Muna Hassan, who co-directed Silent Scream, presented the film’s trailer at Bristol City Hall this week. “We’d like to thank everyone here who supported us,” says. “And there are people here who tried to stop us. We’d like to thank you, too. You showed us why we need to do this.” Hassan herself is now a university student and an articulate campaigner in her own right. This illustrates one of the striking aspects of Integrate’s work: the way that leadership is taken on by those who first encountered the programme as children, with young women like Hassan becoming mentors to the girls who follow her.

There are believed to be at least 60,000 victims of FGM in the UK, and leadership at community level is vital to tackling this form of abuse. But it also requires political leadership, and at the Integrate event, that is represented by Lynne Featherstone MP, parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development: “We can end FGM in a generation,” she tells the audience, and she means worldwide, not just in the UK. She explains that the DfID is taking the lead on the issue because it affects the African diaspora. That means the UK government has a moral responsibility both to the home countries of immigrants to the UK, and a pragmatic reason for attempting to end FGM worldwide: it is often committed against girls when they are taken to visit family in Africa. Protecting British girls demands an international approach.

So it’s very positive that the DfID has allocated £35m to combating FGM. Featherstone explains that this is “a pot of money that for the most part goes towards work in the wider world,” but £1m of that is allocated to work in the UK, and that domestic agenda is being pursued in close collaboration with other departments. Children’s minister Edward Timpson is working with chairs of safeguarding boards; Jane Ellison, the recently appointed minister for public health, has already taken an interest in FGM within her constituency; and Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, has an action plan towards the first prosecution of FGM in the UK. 

Featherstone is also working with David Laws, the minister for schools. And this touches on what many anti-FGM campaigners feel is a great missed opportunity: in June this year, an amendment calling for the provision of compulsory sex education in schools was defeated in parliament. For Nimko Ali of the Daughters of Eve anti-FGM campaign, who works with Integrate Bristol, education is the key to keeping women and girls safe. “If you’re ignorant about your body, you’ve got less chance of protecting yourself,” she explains.

FGM has always been a practice of silence. It is intended to make women quiet and compliant: Ali remembers early on in her campaigning, a woman telling her, “If your mother had sorted you out and cut you, you would behave and not do this work.” And it requires silence to continue: when girls name this form of abuse and speak out against it, they have the power to end it. The Integrate Bristol event ends with a group of girls on stage, singing a song they wrote themselves: “Nobody deserves cutting, it’s cruel and it’s dangerous,” they harmonise sweetly, and the sound they make fills the void where violence dwells.

There are believed to be at least 60,000 victims of FGM in the UK. Image: Oliver Zimmermann at Zed Productions.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA