In the lead up to International Day of Zero Tolerance Against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which takes place on the 6th of February each year, it is exciting and energising to see media coverage, social media activity, and conversations sparking about this issue.  


It is exciting because FGM, a traditional practice which includes all procedures that involve the partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons*, has historically been an incredibly taboo subject.  Cloaked in silence, a key reason that FGM continues in many countries across the world – affecting over 200 million women and girls – is because people are not talking about it.  By breaking the silence, we have the power to start conversations that can protect girls and women from this form of child abuse and violence against women.  The current generation of young adults can choose not to cut their daughters by having these discussions.  Policy-makers can be influenced to change laws and introduce protection initiatives as a result of these conversations.

Media coverage on FGM is increasing every year, and this is important.  The more voices that join the conversations, the better.  But the risk of this explosion in conversations and discussion is in the how:  How are we framing the conversation when we talk about FGM? How are we promoting the voices of survivors, rather than speaking for them? How are we using language which respects the dignity and human rights of girls and women? And most importantly, how are we ensuring that our well-meaning conversations are not doing more harm than good?

Do No Harm principles are essential guidelines for how we can and should talk about FGM.  Developed by world-renowned and respected end-FGM activist, psychotherapist, and writer, Leyla Hussein – in partnership with the UK aid funded programme, The Girl Generation – Do No Harm guidelines ensure that the experience of survivors is kept at the centre of all conversations.

As a key starting point, we need to consider how we talk about those who have experienced FGM.  A problematic trend in the media is for women and girls to be labelled as victims of FGM.  ‘Victim’ has many negative connotations – it suggests helplessness, dependency, pity, and a lack of agency.  To be labelled as a victim can undercut a woman’s confidence and sense of empowerment; it limits their life and their identity to one of powerlessness.  ‘Survivor’, on the other hand, conveys strength.  It assumes that a woman has control over her life and her future; a survivor is empowered and she is brave.  A survivor is confident, and she is defiant in the face of those who would wish to harm her.

Why does this matter? Women and girls who have undergone FGM are at an incredibly high risk of experiencing mental illness including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  We must be responsible in the way we use language to avoid disrespecting the dignity of survivors or undermining their strength and autonomy, so we can limit the risk of causing further harm.

Relatedly, the way we describe FGM is also incredibly important. Words like “horrific”, “barbaric”, and “brutal” run serious risk of doing more harm than good.  Imagine that you are a young girl who has undergone FGM.  You may feel that you have few places to turn to for support, or even to help you understand what has happened to you.  To read such graphic words about your experience is to relive the trauma, to open up more pain, confusion, and suffering.  By using this language, we stigmatise survivors and risk compounding the harm done to women and girls’ psychological well-being.  By sticking to facts and avoiding emotive and sensational language we can minimise this risk of doing harm.

Language is powerful.  How we use language shapes understandings, and creates new meanings.  When we say something enough times it becomes the norm and the given.  This Zero Tolerance Day, I am humbled and I am inspired by the stories being shared across the world by end-FGM activists and survivors, and I celebrate the media for shining a brighter light on this serious human rights violation.  I am confident that these conversations will lead to real and meaningful change at every level – from grassroots to government.  And I am hopeful that when we talk about FGM we all take a moment to reflect on whether we are doing harm in our use of language.

*World Health Organisation. (2014) Female Genital Mutilation, Fact sheet N°241. [Online]