Maurice Gunning, who is photographer in residence at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at UL. recently spoke to TLM to tell us the background behind the trip and the stories of these incredible trailblazing women.
How did it all begin?
“Alice had already spent some time in The Gambia, and after successfully applying for funding in 2014, we set off in May 2015,” Maurice explains. “We travelled with the assistance of a Gambian community organisation, who connected us with a local community ambassador. The women we spoke to were situated in very rural villages, surrounded only by desert. It was
often difficult to travel, and when you realise just how many of these rural areas exist in isolation in the country, you begin to see why the practice has continued as it has, and why there is such a drive to raise awareness to eradicate it.”
The practice of female circumcision, more commonly referred to here as female genital mutilation or FGM, in rural parts of practicing countries like The Gambia, is often carried out shrouded by secrecy, without sterilisation or anaesthetic, and using crude non-medical instruments. Worldwide, it
is estimated that 120 million women and girls have had FGM practiced on them, so it’s by no means an isolated issue. The subject is of huge concern and has been gaining much attention in recent years with global campaigns led by organisations such as the UN, The Guardian newspaper, Equality Now, and Amnesty International.
Gunning and McDowell’s project is remarkable and particularly thought provoking, as it is providing a perspective we don’t often see. The duo photographed and interviewed women who not only had the practice carried out on them, they actually were practitioners.
“We were talking to women who knew of female circumcision not just from a victim perspective. Cutting, as it also known, is a complex issue. Some say it’s religious, some say cultural, some say it’s 1000 years old, others claim it pre dates the Qur’an.”With that in mind, we start to understand why the practice is still ingrained in societies, and just how much of a leap it must be to make the decision to leave that behind and go against what is essentially seen as a rite of passage in a woman’s life.
Absolutely, says Maurice. “It’s been a part of the fabric of these societies for so long, it takes more than just the declaration that it is wrong.” A Symposium for Religious Leaders and Medical Personnel on FGM as a Form of Violence was organised by the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women & Children of The Gambia, GAMCOTRAP. This resulted in the Banjul Declaration of 1998, which stated that the practice has neither Christian or Islamic origins or religious justifications and condemned its continued practice. Alongside this, BAFROW (the Foundation for Research on Women’s Health, Productivity & Development) began working with local communities on an alternative rite of passage project for girls in 1996.
Maurice tells us: “The Gambia as a country is remarkable in that this tiny nation is taking massive steps to put a halt to FGM – they have set a target to eradicate the practice by 2020 and are well on the way to achieving that aim. That said, it’s still not easy for anyone who wishes to turn away from that part of their culture – women still face being ostracised. For the women we spoke to, it was their only means of income. Most of them had stopped in the last five years, a couple of them only in the last year or so. So this exhibition is largely the story of what happened after, what they did to remove themselves from the life they had known. They had to stay strong in their own beliefs and find a means to survive.”
How did they make such a huge step? “Many of them retrained with the help of organisations that help individuals into alternative employment. For example, one woman learned pottery and now sells clay pots, another got a grant of $100, and with that bought a stove and began making bread – she now employs young men to make it for her and runs the business. While another bought a fridge freezer and began selling bags of ice. They are making another life for themselves, but for many others the only way to do that is to leave everything behind.”
With so much debate raging about asylum seekers and European countries response to refugees, was that something else Maurice had in mind when putting the exhibition together?
“Of course it is an underlying issue, but it’s something not really discussed explicitly in the exhibition. We do feel it’s important to realise that many women are seeking asylum to escape FGM, but we’re not actively trying to make a point, we just hope that by sharing these individual experiences it makes people consider the individual lives behind the broader issues we hear about in the media. We didn’t want to make this a campaign or push any agenda, Riverine is a gentle narrative, we just wanted as much as we could to relate what the women had told us in the way that we heard it. We wanted to present their stories, not with any imposed narrative or angle, just a poetic and visual representation of their lives after FGM, and show that there can be positive outcomes.”
Through dialogue and advocacy with religious scholars and the district chiefs of the villages which stretch from the Upper River Region of The Gambia to its meeting with the Atlantic, local organisations have begun to eradicate this practice from the country. The nine women and their stories presented in Riverine, illustrate how combining the elements of custom and tradition with education and knowledge, great change can come about for a country and its people. All nine women are forging a new life and livelihood for themselves, and most importantly, a new future for women in The Gambia.
The exhibition will be formally opened by Professor Michael O’Flaherty, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights, on Tuesday 24th November at 6pm in the main gallery, The Hunt Museum, Limerick.
RIVERINE: 9 Stories from The Gambia
Exhibition open daily from Monday 23rd Nov – Sunday 29th November.
Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sundays 2-5pm.