This Exhibit Wants to Break the Silence Around Female Genital Mutilation
At least 200 million women and girls worldwide have endured female genital mutilation, but the culture of silence and shame around the procedure makes victims so uncomfortable that sometimes they don’t tell their doctors about it until they’re about to give birth.
That’s why Unsterile Clinic, an exhibit at the Rivington Place art center in London, hopes to shed light on the stories of survivors of female genital mutilation, commonly known as FGM. The exhibit, which is curated by cultural and human rights photography nonprofit Autograph ABP, features the work of U.K.-based photographer Aida Silvestri, who underwent the procedure as a child in Eritrea.
Silvestri told TakePart that she began interviewing and photographing women in 2015 for the project, and she found that most of her subjects were reluctant to share what had happened to them. To gain their trust, she had to share her own experience.
“The only reason why they spoke to me is because they knew I had come from practicing communities as well,” Silvestri said. “I had to tell them my story so they felt that they could relate to me.”
The silence makes FGM an issue that is often misunderstood as a “religious issue” or an “African issue,” Silvestri said. She emphasized, however, that FGM happens to women of diverse faith backgrounds all over the world—including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and some Latin American countries—as well as in developed countries that have increasing levels of immigration.
FGM describes procedures that partially or completely remove the external female genital organs for nonmedical reasons. Silvestri interviewed and worked with the women to determine which of the four types of FGM they had, as the practice varies from culture to culture.
To emphasize the silence of the women’s suffering, Silvestri stitched handcrafted leather pieces adorned with flowers to the mouth area of the photograph. Each piece is accompanied by a poem outlining the subject’s story; Silvestri based the poems on information gathered during the interviews.
“I think it’s mainly cultural,” she said. “In some communities...if something happens to your family, you don’t really talk about it.”
The organizers of the exhibit hope the images raise awareness of the issue and encourage more survivors—and more men—to stand up against the practice and recognize that FGM is not about race or religion but is about power and control over women’s bodies and their sexuality.
“To us, FGM is abuse,” Renée Mussai, the curator of the exhibit, wrote in an email to TakePart. “We hope that presenting the exhibition will help raise more awareness, and expose the violence of the practice to an audience not necessarily confronted with its horror before.”