Female genital mutilation, or FGM, is a deeply damaging practice that involves partially or totally removing the external genitalia of girls and young women for non-medical reasons. It is also widespread, with the World Health Organisation estimating more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone the procedure.
Governments and agencies have attempted to encourage African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities to abandon the practice, but so far had little success. That's because the act is deeply rooted in traditional cultural beliefs around a woman's purity, marriageability and cleanliness; critiquing FGM is therefore enormously sensitive, and often ineffective.
Do I have to cut my daughter to be a good Muslim? What are the health risks?
However, a team of researchers may have landed on an innovative solution of sorts, in the form of the humble soap opera. Working with UNICEF, Sonja Vogt and Charles Efferson from the University of Zurich created three "telenovela-style movies" which were played to randomly selected households in Sudan, where according to U.N. data, 87 percent of women between 15-49 have been cut.
The trio of movies was designed to provoke the conflicting attitudes that already existed within the community, without imposing moral judgment. In other words, they were created to start a conversation. And, as noted in Nature Journal, "the [films] significantly improved attitudes towards girls who remain uncut, with one [movie] in particular having a relatively persistent effect."
The secret may lie in the fact the series are not just about FGM: Among the various plot lines, there is the heartbreak of widowed grandfather, a young boy with musical ambitions, plus thievery and con artistry. The discussions around FGM are subtly woven into these diverse and compelling storylines.
At the heart of each film is the home-life of a rural Sudanese family, including scenes showing the types of discussions that already occur within communities. In this case, the impact that cutting – or not cutting – might have on a woman's marriage prospects.
The grandfather's reaction confirms the family's decision to stop cutting.
As the research paper notes, the films "do not consistently present arguments in favour of abandonment [of FGM], and they do not associate negative characters with the support of cutting". Rather, the movies dramatize how difficult a decision cutting can be for parents who want the best for their daughters in a society where cutting is common, but attitudes and practices vary.
The films, 90 minutes each, show husbands and wives discuss the practice of cutting together, "an important innovation in Sudan, where people can generally have difficulty discussing cutting openly when men and women are both present", and end with a scene involving approach to the ageing patriarch of the family:
When the family finally approaches the grandfather, he approves of the proposal to abandon cutting. He speculates that his dead wife would also approve, and he draws an analogy between cutting and facial scarring, a practice once common in Sudan but now in rapid decline. The grandfather's reaction confirms the family's decision to stop cutting, and in this way the movies provide a model for how to include young and old generations in debates about cutting.
The team worked with Sudanese playwright and screenwriter Waleed Omer Babikir Alalf. Researcher Sonja Vogt, who studies the enforcement of social norms, was already familiar with Alalf's work. "I went to a theatre play that he had produced," she says. "It was about rape: How would a rape victim feel if that family turns against her? He was a writer that was specialised in sensitive issues."
Population biologist Charles Efferson says the telenovelas had to fit the brief of balancing entertainment and education, while also acting as a robust research tool. "We called one of the three movies about FGC the 'values movie'," he says, "because it focused on questions of personal or individual values: Do I have to cut my daughter to be a good Muslim? What are the health risks?"
Sonja says the films are a "a softer approach" to broaching the sensitive subject of FGM. It's not about imposing her own cultural beliefs; it's about instigating discussion among those who may already have doubts. "If there is a local disagreement, if there are local people who don't support the tradition, let them bring the discussion from within…"
Relying on local support was essential to the process, with the researchers training young Sudanese grads as data collectors. "There were probably 100 Sudanese people behind us, helping with logistics – 'Is the rainy season coming?' 'How can we reach this remote community?' It's not typical for these countries to do this type of study, so in that way it was a challenge for everybody."
The community members who watched the films were guaranteed anonymity and privacy; they were then invited to score their attitudes towards uncut girls after viewing the films, and it was through this scoring process that researchers were able to record the true impact of the films. So far, early results have been positive, with "large, robust and significant increases in positive attitudes about uncut girls".
"The fact that those 27 minutes produced an effect that could be measured and was statistically significant after just one week… I think that's very encouraging," says Charles. "It shows that this is a powerful mechanism. There's lot of research showing that movies and television can have a very important effect on how people view gender equality, so hopefully our movies fit in [with] that emerging tradition.
"You don't have to go in and assume that people need to be educated or that they don't understand," he adds. "You can take the differences of opinion that already exist within the culture of interest, and simply display those and dramatize those in a way that helps people identify with the decision-making process … and potentially resolve in favor of the abandonment of FGM."