Actor calls for media FGM stories

Sunekra Sarker speaks as charity ambassador

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Liverpool actor Sunetra Sarker has called on storytellers working in TV and radio not to shy away from tackling “honour-based” abuse and FGM in their work, saying discussion and representation “validates” the experience of victims and can give them strength to speak out.

Sarker, best known for her roles as Nisha Batra in Brookside and Zoe Hanna in Casualty, was recently announced as the new celebrity ambassador for charity Savera UK, an organisation dedicated to tackling culturally-specific abuse, including forced marriage, female genital mutilation (FGM) and so-called honour-based abuse.

The organisation provides support to those at risk, regardless of their age, culture, sexuality or gender.

‘Shocking figures’

In 2014 Casualty was praised after it became the first mainstream drama on British TV to feature a storyline on FGM, in which Sarker’s character, a doctor, supported a victim.

Sarker says the storyline led her to bettering her own understanding of the impact honour-based abuse has, and has called on writers and journalists not to shy away from broaching the topic in their work.

“I did an episode of Casualty many years ago and it was the first time the BBC had broached the subject of FGM,” she said.

“We had to handle it very carefully, but we found through research that it is rife, that it is happening up to six times a week in some parts of England – really shocking figures. Media outlets like TV and radio need to make this a talking point or story point.

“That’s how we infiltrate the public – it tends to be through news stories or dramas, television programmes and figures in the public eye.”

Praise for bravery

Savera UK’s latest campaign aims to eliminate honour-based abuse by educating and empowering people to speak out about their experiences, but Sarker says traditionally media organisations have neglected to cover honour-based abuse for fear of offending communities.

Two weeks ago two people were arrested in Rotherham after a woman told police she had suffered FGM. Police praised her for her bravery in coming forward after the two – a man and a woman now on bail – were arrested.

Earlier in the year, Leeds-based national charity Karma Nirvana reported it had seen a rise in the number of girls and women being forced into marriages and other incidents of honour-based crimes over the Christmas holidays.

“Those absences go unnoticed because it is Christmas – girls at risk are more invisible at that time of year,” Natasha Rattu, Karma Nirvana director, told the Independent.

‘Cultural tradition’

Sarker said: “This is a subject I feel that people know about through conversational topics, but it’s not really focused on in the media a lot because it is seen as a cultural thing, and when we get to culture we get very PC and very scared to have an opinion, especially if we are saying we don’t agree with a cultural tradition.

“The problem is we feel very comfortable talking about British traditions, but when it comes to cultures that believe in forced marriage or justify honour-based abuse, we sort of shy away from it, because we don’t really know and it’s not our culture, so we don’t want to be seen to say it’s wrong because we’re so worried about being condemned for it.

“Because it doesn’t affect everyone we do feel a bit easier avoiding it, so I do encourage storytellers and journalists to go out and tell these stories.

“I want young girls in difficult positions to feel their abuse is valid and they need to be made more aware so it can be stopped as soon as possible.”

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