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."
Do I have to cut my daughter to be a good Muslim? What are the health risks?
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:
The grandfather's reaction confirms the family's decision to stop 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."
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.
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."