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Geography and Environment academic's photography features at LSE Research Festival Exhibition 2014

Sylvia Chant, Professor of Development Geography in the Department of Geography and Environment, had no fewer than three photographs selected for the final exhibition of this year’s LSE Research Festival.

A passionate photographer, Sylvia regularly documents the day-to-day lives of the people she meets in the course of her work, in this instance while researching issues surrounding the practice of Female Genital Mutilation in The Gambia. While they are striking images in their own right, the context of these photographs is just as important to the story they impart – something the Exhibition selection committee were looking for from all of this year’s entrants.

Exemption © Sylvia Chant

Exemption. ©Sylvia Chant

As part of my work on gender and poverty in The Gambia, I have collaborated with Dr Isatou Touray, Founder and Executive Director of the NGO, GAMCOTRAP, which since the 1980s has been engaged, inter alia, in the struggle to eliminate

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which affects over two-thirds of the female population in the country.  Aside from GAMCOTRAP’s contributions to drafting a parliamentary bill to outlaw FGM, the organisation has also worked in several communities at the grassroots in order to foment popular support for protecting the health of women and girls.  In the photograph here, taken at GAMCOTRAP’s fourth major ‘Dropping of the Knife’ ceremony, held in Wassu, Central River Region in April 2013, thirty circumcisors pledged to abandon the practice, sparing hundreds of young girls from a potentially life-threatening violation of their human and bodily rights, and granting them a future denied to their mothers and grandmothers. 

New Era at Wassu © Sylvia Chant

New Era at Wassu. © Sylvia Chant

Adolescent girls engage in a public event in which the consequences will be far-reaching.  Instead of dressing-up as a prelude to subjection to Female Genital Cutting (FGC), these girls in Wassu, in The Gambia’s Central River Region, are participating in a ceremony in which thirty circumcisors and 336 communities in the area pledged to renounce the practice in April 2013, and at which several people, ranging from politicians, Islamic scholars, activists and academics gave speeches of solidarity and support, including me, as part of my ongoing work on gender justice in The Gambia and collaborator with Dr Isatou Touray, Founder and Executive Director of the NGO, GAMCOTRAP, which organised the event after years of campaigning and grassroots work in the locality.  I endeavoured. in picturing the faces of these young women, to capture the simultaneous joy, hope,  and solemnity of this occasion, considering the historical legacy of the practice for the health and human rights of generations before them.

Our Daughters, Wassu © Sylvia Chant

Our Daughters, Wassu. © Sylvia Chant

In April 2013, an event of major historical importance took place in The Gambia, West Africa – the renunciation of communities and circumcisors in Wassu, Central River Region, of the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), to which over two-thirds of the Gambian female populace are routinely subjected from infancy into adulthood.   There is as yet no law in The Gambia to outlaw a practice that affects up to two-thirds of women in the country, but the NGO, GAMCOTRAP (Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children), has since the 1980s been engaged in the struggle to eliminate FGM. At GAMCOTRAP’s fourth ‘Dropping of the Knife’ Ceremony young girls who would routinely have undergone FGM dress up in the finery normally associated with the occasion, and shed their shoes, only to celebrate a new form of adulthood in which their fundamental rights to bodily integrity are preserved.

The LSE Research festival culminates each year with a multimedia exhibition featuring the work of researchers from LSE and elsewhere. Now in its fourth year, the exhibition forms part of a week-long programme of events designed to celebrate the creativity that lies at the heart of all research. This year’s exhibition featured photographs, posters and short films entered by PhD students, academic and research staff from LSE, UCL, SOAS, University of Cambridge and the Bloomsbury Doctoral Training Centre.

Of the festival, Professor Chant said: 'What I love about this annual event - apart from the wine (!) - is the opportunity to meet so many interesting people within and beyond the LSE, including alumni and the general public.  The exhibition of so many creative forms of expression in one place, provides a spectacular showcasing of (and shortcut into) the fascinating research my colleagues are doing, provides opportunities for exchange and learning (although I'm sure I'll never be able to design an 'app'!), and is a wonderful means of contributing to 'impact' - something deemed increasingly significant in the Research Excellence Framework (REF)' .

Sylvia Chant, with her three exhibits for the 2014 LSE Research Festival
~ Professor Sylvia Chant, with her three exhibits at the 2014 LSE Research Festival exhibition