In honor of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation in early February, many news publications ran features to call attention to the persistence of this harmful health practice — one that has lifelong psychological and physical consequences for women. Many of those stories used sensationalist photos, highly judgmental language or framed female genital mutilation (FGM) as a practice performed only by particular religious communities.
The stories drew a sigh from Fiona Coyle, director of the Brussels-based End FGM European Network. She says that the sensitive, urgent nature of this global health issue shines through in the language used by journalists to talk about it. “People really want to use the harshest language to talk about this because it's such an emotive subject,” she says. “But what we do see is that that just backlashes then, and it stigmatizes the women who've gone through it, and there are so many of them.” To help, End FGM has put out a guide to help people talk about FGM without using disrespectful or stigmatizing language.
The term FGM refers to any procedure involving the removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is a global health issue that crosses cultures, religions and communities. From Malaysia to Russia to the U.S., and everywhere in between, two-hundred million women around the world have undergone some form of female genital mutilation – the same number of people that speak Portuguese worldwide.
Patrick Egwu is a Nigerian journalist currently based in South Africa who wrote an award-winning, cross-border story about FGM together with two colleagues. He adds that journalists covering FGM should tread carefully. “FGM is a very sensitive issue. As a journalist, you need to be sensitive in reporting FGM,” he says.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when reporting on FGM, and some pitfalls to steer clear of.
- Do some background research, so you can establish what’s already been done, and what gaps left by other reporters you can fill.
- Be empathetic, put yourself in the shoes of FGM survivors. Get permission from parents or caregivers before interviewing underage FGM survivors.
- Respect the wishes of those you are interviewing and keep your promises. If someone doesn’t want to be identified with their full name, respect that. If someone doesn’t want their photograph to be taken, or if they don’t want the story to mention the type of FGM they have undergone, respect that.
- Communicate the importance of the story to your sources. “Tell them why their story needs to be told,” says Egwu. Opening up will create awareness and educate local communities, he adds.
- Be creative in the photos you use for stories about FGM. Use positive imagery such as photos of anti-FGM activists during protests or opt for more general, creative photos like a flower. Avoid photos of rusty blades or other sensationalist images as they can be triggering.
- Use neutral terms like a “harmful health practice” or “human rights violation” to refer to FGM.
- Rely on the words of others, not your own. “There's so many wonderful activists who want to speak about this to journalists,” Coyle says. “These activists are the primary voices who should be heard.”
- Don’t use judgmental language or terms that can cause offense. Avoid words like “barbaric” and “savage.” Such terms stigmatize women who have undergone the practice, and the communities that practice it.
- Don’t rate or rank the different types of FGM, and don’t suggest that some forms of FGM are more benign than others. All forms of FGM are harmful, and are a violation of women’s rights.
- Don’t focus too much on the physical FGM procedure.
- Don’t frame FGM as a practice that is performed only by a particular religious group or geographical region. FGM is practiced across religions and all over the world.
- Don’t approach FGM as an issue to which there are two equally valid sides. “FGM is an internationally recognized form of a violation of human rights, and a form of gender-based violence. Those who support it should always be challenged,” Coyle says.
All in all, it simply comes down to basic tenets of ethical journalism, Egwu says. Journalists who don’t stick to these basic tenets risk losing the trust of the communities they report on as well as compromising their own integrity. “Any journalists around the world reporting on FGM should really consider […] the ethics of the profession and abide by that,” he adds.
Journalists need to overcome their potential discomfort about the subject and let go of the fear that their reporting might fuel anti-immigrant rhetoric. “There is still a taboo because for so long, it was seen as a cultural practice,” she says, pointing out that it isn’t. “There is a fear that speaking out on this will somehow make them seem racist or disrespectful to cultures, but the communities themselves are now rising up and wanting to end this practice.”