UNITED NATIONS—One image captures the attention of passersby. It’s an oversized black-and-white photo of a young Ethiopian woman named Rahwa. With a lion’s mane of natural hair, a lithe build decked in a printed faux-fur jacket, and a look of bewilderment on her face, she appears to be posing for a fashion magazine.
In reality, Rahwa is photographed in a gynecological ward in Auckland, New Zealand. She is there to undergo reconstructive surgery after complications from a devastating rite-of-passage still common in many parts of Africa.
As a 10-year-old girl, Rahwa fled Ethiopia seeking solace in a Sudanese refugee camp. However, in the Sudan, 82 percent of girls between the ages of 15 to 19 undergo female genital mutilation procedures. It was a fate Rahwa could not escape.
In the lobby at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City, visitors are greeted by the faces of women who survived these procedures and a new generation of girls who vow to bring the centuries-old practice to an end.
Titled, “Female Genital Mutilation: 68 Million Girls At Risk,” a gallery of photo essays celebrates the efforts of activists who are working to ban the ritual, which has been described by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres as one of the most abhorrent violations of human rights.
“It denies women and girls their dignity, endangers their health and causes needless pain and suffering, even death,” Guterres says in a message posted in the exhibit.
In the non-medical procedure, known by its initialism FGM, girls are usually circumcised at any time from when they are infants until they reach the age of 15. The practice, which has no health benefits, can cause severe bleeding, infections and cysts, and it can complicate urination and childbirth, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Globally, more than 200 million girls and women have undergone FGM, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); the agency estimates that an additional 68 million girls are still at risk.
“In my area, women are not supposed to study or be able to do anything because they are telling them, 'you are not important in society,’” says a teenage Kenyan girl named Sharleen, who shares her testimony in the exhibit. Sharleen’s father wanted her to undergo the FGM procedure and enter into marriage, but she resisted. Instead, she followed the advice of women who told her education was the path to getting “big jobs.” Sharleen’s mother supported her decision and sold a family cow to afford her school fees.
The exhibit is in collaboration with Dysturb, an NGO launched by journalists and artists in 2014 that takes its message to the streets via conversation-starting life-size photos highlighting pressing global issues. This time, it partnered with the UNFPA and UNICEF for the 68 Million At Risk campaign.
The procedure, according to WHO, can range from a partial or total removal of the clitoris and sometimes the labia minora and/or the labia majora. Other practices include the narrowing the vaginal opening by re-positioning the labia sometimes through stitching; in fact, any pricking, piercing, scraping and incising of the genital area would fall under the WHO definitions of FGM.
In understanding the cultural and social factors for the FGM procedures, WHO cited this explanation: “It aims to ensure premarital virginity and marital fidelity.” These beliefs end up costing girls a lifetime of severe health complications.
Dr. Yohannes Yimer, an Ethiopian obstetrician and gynecologist featured in the exhibit, is one of the medical professionals working to undo the damage done. Yimer treats patients at risk of hemorrhaging, urinary and menstrual problems or other complications after the initial cutting or later during intercourse, pregnancy, labor and delivery. Yimer works at a hospital that partners with field practitioners in rural communities heavily impacted by FGM, and it finds ways to bring in patients.
Also featured in the display is Santi Salamata of Burkina Faso. A former excisor and an FGM cutter, Salamata had been cutting girls for 40 years with a knife she inherited from her mother, who was also a cutter. Salamata estimates that she mutilated about 10 girls each year before quitting the practice in 2014 out of fear of criminal charges. Two years later, Salamata attended a workshop and training, and now she works with her community leaders to abandon the practice.
The six-week long photo exhibit, which began on the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, is coming to a close Monday, March 25. However, the fight continues to protect those 68 million at-risk girls by eliminating FGM and ensuring gender equality. Organizers are challenging the public to get involved by joining the online campaign and donating.
If you want to donate, click here.
If you want to join the online campaign, click here.
Image credit: UNFPA Somalia