Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Awareness Poster Campaign (Amnesty International & Volontaire)
From the curators: Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision or cutting, is a term that encompasses all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. The physical and emotional complications and harm inflicted on girls and women who experience FGM is unarguable. However, the practice of FGM is rooted in a mixture of social, cultural, and religious factors, and is therefore a complex and controversial issue. The poster design by the Swedish agency Volontaire for Amnesty International illustrates the stitches and closures used in three of the four different categories of FGM (the fourth, “other,” is a catch-all for procedures other than clitoridectomy, excision, or infibulation). The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that in the 29 (mostly African and Middle Eastern) countries where the practice of FGM is concentrated, more than 125 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM. Recognizing it as a contravention of human rights, multiple agencies of the United Nations and Amnesty International are, in collaboration with the WHO, leading the charge to end the practice of FGM as as part of a larger campaign to eliminate violence against women.
So much artistry and money is devoted to the design of advertisements. Campaigns are everywhere and their purpose is simple: they want to sell you something, to have you desire it. Most of all they make you want to be part of the glamorous image of a brand.
There is one exception: when an advertising agency creates a campaign for a charity, what does it sell? It’s not a car, not a perfume. They don’t sell you anything, they want to mobilize you, to make you aware of an unbearable reality that exists somewhere in the world and that you could help change.
This is not an easy task. I’ve traveled to the poorest parts of Africa with UNICEF and I’ve witnessed many dire situations where the most basic needs are left unfulfilled. When it is time to come back to the Western world and speak to the media, I sometimes feel powerless to express my outrage. If you’re too angry, you’re going to turn people off; if you’re too soft, nobody will care. The traditional singers from my country, Benin, have given me some advice on how to express my outrage. I was always surprised by the contrast between the depth of their message and the uplifting quality of their music. They taught me that the way the message is delivered is as important as the message itself. Don’t make people feel guilty if you want to have a lasting effect on their conscience.
In order to manipulate our emotions and to drive us to buy products, advertising agencies have designed many techniques that include the use of shocking and violent images. Are all those techniques fair game for charities when they are supposed to promote the well-being of humanity? The answer seems obvious: a graphic ad will make us react and react fast. It will use our predisposition for compassion and pity to push us to donate right away. Our donation will staunch our guilty conscience and we will soon feel good again.
But this manipulative strategy comes with a cost. Not only does it border on voyeurism, it also perpetuates some preconceptions on how Africa is perceived—a continent of poverty and disease. More importantly, the unbearable pity we experience prevents us from having a long-lasting connection with the people we’re trying to help. When an ad displays the extent of people’s misery, and only that, not only is their pride taken away but they are also made to seem like they belong to a different, distant world. It feels like we’ll never meet these people in person. They cease to be human like us.
Excision, as denounced in this Amnesty campaign, is a complex and tragic issue. It’s a hurtful tradition, a rite of passage, in which the perpetuator—the older woman who “operates”—is also a victim. Passing laws won’t be enough. It is smart advocacy and long-term education that are needed.
Creating an ad campaign to raise awareness on this subject must have been a challenge. Because of its intimate nature, using graphic images—which other campaigns could have used with few qualms—is not an option. Instead of pushing the boundaries on violent imagery or watering down the message with beautiful faces of poor girls, the designer has used a powerful solution that, in my view, expresses the outrage without degrading the viewer or the victim. Even though the practice of infibulation is almost literally pictured here, those ads use strong symbolism and the power of imagination to make sure we won’t stay indifferent. And we should not.