At first I was appalled and angry, then it dawned on me that I should understand her. We win when we understand.
The bashing the First Lady of Sierra Leone is receiving for her comments on FGM and her personal stance on it is, I think, harsh and hostile. We don’t win over opponents or adversaries or non-supporters by hitting them on the head or by being adversarial, hostile, acerbic, uncharitable. We persuade with reasons, facts and through understanding and empathy.
I disapprove all that the Sierra Leone First Lady said about FGM and the superimposition of her experience on all victims of FGM or as their experience too. That was wrong and a minimalisation of pains and agonies and lifelong trauma. But I defend her right to speak her mind about FGM and her position on it. I disagree with her but I won’t be disagreeable.
The Sierra Leone First Lady was very frank about her stance. She could have sugarcoated her response, be politically correct or evade the question. She was truthful and spoke her mind. Why should we punish or crucify her for being frank? The danger we are creating for shouting her down is that next time she could be false to us. Or we could be losing a potential ally and strong voice. Who would be the bigger loser?
There could be amongst us men and women who shout “down with FGM” in the morning but in the evening, in the company of family members, softly whisper “cut her; it is part of our culture. I just need their money”… They run with the anti-FGM campaigners and go to bed with the pro-FGM fighters. The First Lady of Sierra Leone has better character than such wolves in sheep clothing.
The First Lady of Sierra Leone needs our empathy and understanding, more than our hostility. Her responses on FGM showed her inadequate understanding of FGM and its effects or about the situation of FGM in The Gambia (and we have two authoritative sources on FGM, MICS and DHS, plus two studies done by NGBV).
Her rationalisation of FGM, or the minimalisation of its effects, resonate or dovetail well with the same that the woman in the backwaters of the Gambia will give or give, even if they aren’t scientifically correct. What we must do is to disabuse their minds of such thoughts through dialogue, reasoning, presentation of empirical data or evidence and evidential advocacy.
Thus, the First Lady of Sierra Leone provides us the opportunity to raise her awareness on FGM, change her perceptions and make her a strong, formidable ally and champion against FGM. She provides us the opportunity to submit to her all the materials, including statistics and videos, that we have on the subject matter, invite her to seminars on FGM and engage her in serious discussions. She provides us the opportunity to liaise with our colleagues in Sierra Leone to engage their First Lady, to initiate advocacy. A win-win situation would be more desirable than the hostility.
We know that even in the Gambia our work is just beginning. We have a law which prohibits FGM but which is more a scarecrow than a threat, openly defied. Awareness of FGM and it’s effects is very high but those who want to continue the practice is equally high. That poses for us another greater challenge. We cannot win hearts and minds by being adversarial, especially about things also regarded as culture. Social change requires that we relook at our approaches.
A story is told of a famous chest player who, asked how he wins his matches said: I always get up from my seat and go and stand behind my opponent and look at the chessboard from his side. Then I go back to my seat and win the match”. Unless we understand FGM too from the perspective of its supporters and debunk their views from that perspective, we might not win the battle so easily.
Understand that you may be understood.