Don't forget the grassroots - Insights from a young leader who thought she knew it all

5 December 2017

Zipporah Dione (pictured far right) is a PhD student in law and works for ROAJELF-Senegal (West African Young Women Leaders Network). She has been part of the movement to end FGM since 2014. In July 2017, she accompanied The Girl Generation and The Face of Defiance team to photograph FGM survivors and campaigners living in southern Senegal. 

About The Face of Defiance

On 5 and 6 December 2017, the inspirational end FGM photography project will exhibit in Dakar to mark the 16 Days of Activism to End Gender-Based Violence. Created by Leyla Hussein and Jason Ashwood, the project celebrates FGM survivors and campaigners who are willing to speak publicly about their experiences, many for the first time. 

Leyla shares how her idea for the project came about in this interview with The Guardian:

“I was sick and tired of FGM survivors constantly being portrayed as these sad, broken women. We had the privilege of photographing some of the most beautiful, amazing, powerful campaigners and FGM survivors. We’re really honoured that we are going to be exhibiting them and their work to a really massive platform.”

Zipporah shares her journey

Rather than coming to Senegal to meet the high flying movement leaders in the city, The Face of Defiance team wanted to go right to the grassroots – to meet the real people in remote areas who are putting their lives on the line to see an end to FGM in the communities where it takes place. I never had the opportunity to meet these people before, to see the environment in which they live and their realities which are very different from our lives in the capital.  

Having been part of the movement to end FGM since 2014, I thought I knew it all. I’m a member of the West African Young Women Leaders Network and ending FGM is one of our strategic goals. I thought I understood all the different issues, and thought I understood all the different people. But I now see I had my own prejudices.

This was the first time such an important awareness raising project was implemented at the grassroots level, in a remote area. Before there was no real recognition of the great work done by activists, the unknown people at the national level, and simple women without big names but who are completely dedicated to end FGM.

This was the first time such an important awareness raising project was implemented at the grassroots level, in a remote area.

The Face of Defiance wanted to show the powerful reality of work happening at the community level: Campaigners who have no financial support, just their commitment and their personal strength and determination to keep their girls uncut. We wanted the project to be inclusive so we visited southern Senegal, which remains the area most affected by FGM.

This approach allowed not only direct contact with the local populations who felt involved and concerned but also recognition and valorisation of the actions that the local organisations are carrying out to end FGM. The Face of Defiance gives a platform to those whose stories often go untold.

I also have a new eye on cutters that I previously considered to be criminals. I realised that many, if not all, cutters were themselves victims of FGM, and they were not even aware of the harm they were doing by practicing it. This is why education about the dangers of FGM is so important. Social norms are deeply engrained and continue for generations because no one questions them. My encounter with former cutters deeply affected me during this project because it allowed me to see them with a different perspective. Indeed, I used to consider them the main culprits of this practice. Today, I know for sure that they are already involved and should be more part of the end FGM movement.

Social norms are deeply engrained and continue for generations because no one questions them.

As a result of all of this, I am even more convinced of the necessity for each one of us to contribute to protect girls from FGM, and meeting with survivors reinforced my commitment to the cause.

The Face of Defiance has shown that FGM is still a hot topic, and that there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in the most remote areas of Senegal where the practice is deeply rooted. In this sense, The Girl Generation arrives at the right time, and will no doubt be able to play its full role with communities and civil society organisations to work towards a definitive abandonment of the practice. The photo exhibition will I hope shine a light on this issue, by showcasing in Senegal and elsewhere the great work done by great people in remote communities to grow the movement to end FGM. 

The Face of Defiance exposition will take place in Dakar on Tuesday 5th and Wednesday 6th December 2017 at la Maison de la Presse (Medina rue 5 X Corniche). 

You can read more about Leyla Hussein's experiences of photographing The Face of Defiance in Senegal in her article "The Face of Defiance: Lessons from the Senegalese Movement." 

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