Today is International Women’s Day; to mark this, we should look back at groundbreaking photojournalism done by female photographers, here, here, and here. We should also look at this upsetting body of work by Stephanie Welsh.
In 1995, 21-year old Stephanie Welsh landed in Kenya to begin a yearlong internship (which paid $100 per month) with the Daily Nation, a Nairobi newspaper. On her planeride, she read Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy, where the female protagonist who submits to female circumcision out of tribal loyalty, and decided the pursue the story.
In Kenya, the practice, now commonly called female genital mutilation (FGM), was illegal but still widespread. FGM involves cutting or removing part or all of a female’s external genitalia, usually when she is just a child or entering puberty. Unlike male circumcision, which at least curbs the transmission of HIV, FGM brings no medical benefit whatsoever.
Welsh traveled to rural Kenya, taught herself Swahili, spent two weeks living with the family of a 16-year-old girl about to undergo the ritual, in a hut of cow dung and straw, drinking goat milk laced with cow blood. Her story of the ritual was heartbreaking — the girl shouted out “Why are you trying to kill me?” and “I’m dying. I’m going to die,” even as blood ran and curdled on the red mud. Although the Nation published only a watered-down version, they were picked up by in 12 U.S. newspapers. Welsh won a second-place prize in the World Press Photo and a Pulitzer.
The photo raised awareness of FGM; the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals ruled that genital mutilation is a form of persecution. Yet the practice persisted; annually around two million girls undergo the procedure even today, oftentimes done crudely with a razor or a glass shard. It was linked to honor, chastity and access to favorable marriages and social networks, and widely supported by women. A recent study showed that the daughters of a mother belonging to an ethnic group where FGM is widespread are more likely to undergo the practice it than those of a mother not belonging to such a group.
Welsh’s photos also became the centerpiece of one such debate, with many anthropologists and African commentators denouncing appropriation of women’s bodies as exhibits (the girl in the photo had not given permission for the images to be taken) and Western ‘cultural and ideological colonialism’. Welsh herself hang up her Nikon in 1999 to devote to anti-FGM causes and become a midwife.
(Due to the upsetting nature of the images, we are posting only one photo, which was the most widely published photo because it was the least violent. In the photo, the mutilated girl examines her excised pudenda. The rest, you can see here; in a blog post, Stephanie Welsh remembers that sweltering April day).