NEW YORK — On Sept. 27, 2015, 193 countries ratified the 17 new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — targets to be reached to end global poverty by 2030. How does a topic become global issue like this?
There are several steps a topic goes through before reaching an agenda as large as the U.N.’s SDGs.
1. The first step to transforming a topic into a global issue is to identify a problem.
Take the case of female genital mutilation (FGM).
In this case, FGM is both a human rights and global health issue. In terms of human rights, women and girls are violated by being forced to undergo this invasive procedure, most often between infancy and 15 years of age. In terms of health, FGM can lead to urinary problems, cysts, infection, infertility and death.
2. The second step is to make the issue simple to understand.
The psychological theory of cognitive fluency tells us that when information is easily digested, people tend to take more interest in the issue and believe in the argument.
The World Health Organization (WHO) simply defines FGM as “procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
3. The third step is to back up the issue with relevant data to show that it is a pressing matter.
According to WHO, 125 million women and girls alive today have received FGM. Women who have undergone FGM are twice more likely to die during childbirth or give birth to a stillborn child than women who have not undergone FGM.
4. The fourth step is to frame the issue.
While most ads and articles we see are negative, psychological studies show that people respond better to positive appeals, especially when it comes to disease prevention. Other times, current approaches may not be garnering the support needed to make a topic a global issue, so the issue may need to be reframed.
Prior to the 1990s, violence against women at all was seen as a private issue not under international jurisdiction. Once it became seen as a human rights and global health issue, violence against women, including FGM, started making its way into international concern.
Since 1997, 24 African countries, 12 industrialized countries and several states in other countries passed laws banning FGM for any purpose. In most countries the prevalence of FGM is decreasing. WHO believes that “if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.”
5. The fifth step is to repeat, repeat, repeat.
Repetition leads to familiarity, and as the theory of cognitive fluency suggests, familiarity leads to ease and belief. The same theory also warns against over-saturation, however, as it can lead to contempt. Subtle variations in portraying a message can overcome this.
Beginning in 1990, FGM is now a topic at issue at international conferences every year. At each conference, FGM is brought up in a different context. Some examples include the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development and the 1995 World Conference on Women.
6. The sixth step is to be loud.
Psychological studies show that even if just one member of a group repeats a point, it will influence everyone. Using celebrities as spokespeople on ads and social media as a platform are common and quick ways to raise awareness of an issue.
In February 2014, FGM survivor Fahma Mohamed launched a petition on change.org calling on U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove to write every headteacher in the U.K. to inform every teacher and parent about FGM. Mohamed’s petition was subsequently endorsed by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, and Gove agreed to honor Mohamed’s wishes.
Similar petitions were launched in the U.S., which led President Obama to investigate cases of FGM among immigrants in the country.
Throughout 2015, the world gathered at various conferences to discuss what should be the goals and targets of the U.N.’s new SDGs. Prior to the 1990s, FGM was hardly talked about. This year, eliminating FGM is a specific target — target 5.3 — of the U.N.’s SDGs.
– Celestina Radogno