Tackling one of Africa’s last taboos

How ActionAid raised awareness about female genital mutilation - a practice that, while illegal in many African countries, impacts millions of women every year

Every year three million girls in Africa are at risk of female genital mutilation (FGM) while more than 135,000 girls and women in the UK live with the consequences of such actions, according to charity ActionAid. And, sadly, it is not a new phenomenon.

Approximately 140 million girls and women worldwide have undergone the procedure, which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia. To put that number in context: it is more than double the population of the UK.

The procedure can have devastating effects, both physically and psychologically, and can also cause infection, infertility and death. But it is a practice that has deep roots in social, economic and political structures, and is viewed by some parents as a way to uphold family honour and traditions. As a result, despite being illegal in many places, including 24 African countries, FGM remains a major problem. In Ethiopia, for example, it was estimated that 27.2 million women had undergone the procedure in the nine years after it was made illegal in 2004.

ActionAid, which is working in ten African countries to stamp out the practice, believes the best way to tackle the issue is to raise awareness, which is why it commissioned agency Weber Shandwick to create a campaign that would make people sit up and take notice.

It wasn’t easy. FGM is a dark topic that few are willing to confront while ActionAid’s budget was small. The campaign needed to be creative if it was going to reach as many people as possible, and give ActionAid a credible voice to fundraise around the issue. Shareability turned out to be the key.

‘We know that young people online are avid sharers, and we wanted to target that audience to get as much reach as possible,’ explains James Nester, executive creative director at Weber Shandwick. ‘We knew that, if we could get this subject in front of them, they would care about it.’

Young people are also more likely to watch online video content, which led Weber Shandwick to approach vloggers and influencers, asking them to edit a ten-second message from a Kenyan girl who faces FGM into their content, without explanation to their viewers.

140 million girls and women have undergone the procedure: more than twice the population of the UK

In Kenya, female genitalia mutilation is referred to as ‘the cut’. By editing, or cutting, the message into otherwise regular content, there would be a double meaning in the campaign title #BrutalCut.

‘The thing about the vlogging community is that it’s relatively tight, and once one person was on board, others followed,’ says Nester. ‘The other thing about the vlogging community is that they are incredibly busy. We had to make the barrier to do this as low as possible. We created a web app which would automatically splice content, to be useful for bloggers and anyone else who wanted to get involved.’

There were some initial concerns that vloggers might be hesitant to get involved as it meant forgoing control over their own content, but these proved short-lived. ‘We knew it was a big ask but it is a testament to the nature of the vloggers we worked with and the good cause behind [the campaign],’ says Nester.

At noon on 28 July 2016, without any warning, the message interrupted vlogger videos, cinema adverts and 132 digital screens in the UK, including those at Piccadilly Circus, delivering the message This cut might be irritating, but some cuts are life-destroying.

The video linked to, where visitors could use a web app to edit a brutal cut into their own selfies and share on social media and find out more about the issue and ActionAid’s plans to end the practice. The campaign inspired 24 celebrities and high-profile vloggers, including Britain’s Got Talent judge Alesha Dixon, and online publishers, including LADbible and Pretty 52, to cut the video into their social content or post support. The online campaign was then covered by traditional media outlets, such as the Independent, Teen Vogue, BBC Asian Network and Mashable.

The campaign was not without its challenges. Timing was important. The July launch was timed to coincide with what is termed ‘cutting season’ in one of the worst-affected areas of Kenya, Kongelai, a settlement in the country’s Rift Valley Province, where three quarters of girls, mostly under the age of 15, faced the cut.

But while the campaign was designed to be shared, Weber Shandwick worked to make sure that the message did not reach younger audiences who might be affected by the distressing nature of the issue. ‘It’s a very adult issue,’ acknowledges Nester.

The vloggers chosen had a history of posting about social issues, and their audiences would expect them to do just that. The issue also had to be addressed sensitively for those directly affected by it. FGM survivors and women’s rights workers from ActionAid Kenya were consulted to ensure that the issue was addressed in the correct way.

‘It was an incredibly brave campaign for ActionAid to do,’ admits Nester. ‘You run lots of risks with campaigns like that. The risks paid off. ActionAid had hoped that the campaign would be seen by 400,000 people, but it was actually viewed by more than 152 million.

As a result of the campaign’s success, ActionAid received a substantial £250,000 grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery. This was subsequently increased to ú2.6 million, a level ActionAid calls ‘unprecedented’.

The funding is being used to build community safe centres in Kenya, for girls fleeing from FGM, while a training centre is being created where girls who have been affected by FGM can learn skills for life, with the hopes that this scheme will eventually become self-sustaining as the girls’ work generates income.

ActionAid Kenya is also hoping to expand its programme from Kenya to another eight countries. There can surely be no better reward for a campaign than that. As Nester says: ‘It’s the combination of a brave client, a good idea and a good cause.’