Dr. Faith Mkwesha, who is the founder and executive director of Sahwira Africa International non-government organization, expressed shock when she first saw the Plan International maternity wear in a campaign using a 12-year-old Zambian girl called Fridah.
Sahwira Africa International has an African resource center that organizes cultural activities and consultancy on African culture and development issues.
Dr. Faith Mkwesha.
Dr. Mkwesha, an Åbo Akademi researcher, sees a lot of problems with the Plan International Finland’s campaign which used Finnish couture designed clothes by Paola Suhonen and photographed by photographer and journalist Meeri Koutaniemi.
Pictures of the 12-year-old pregnant Fridah. Source: Plan Finland.
“I was shocked when I saw the advert for the first time at a bus stop, but at closer inspection of the whole campaign and other things came to light,” she said. “For one, this campaign is by white people and how they perceive black girls and women. The pictures reinforce that black girl children, not teenagers, are sexually promiscuous and black men as pedophiles. It also encourages black phobia.”
While there are unwanted pregnancy cases among girls in all cultures, Dr. Mkwesha asks, “what would happen if a Finnish white European twelve-year-old pregnant girl would be pictured and portrayed in such a sexual manner?”
“This would be out of the question, and there would be an outcry if the white pregnant girl would be posing and using the same or African clothing,” she continued. “This is racist because it reinforces the stereotypes of a hypersexualized and promiscuous black girls and women that have been with us since colonialism.”
Dr. Mkwesha said that there are other problems with the ad campaign by Plan International Finland. She said that white women speak in the video and Fridah is silenced. “What gives them the power to come to Africa and speak on behalf of black women?” she asked. “There are many articulate and educated black women who can speak in the Finnish language.”
“Zambia has feminists, and we do not need white feminists to come to tell us how we should defend ourselves,” she continued. “Look at the pictures. We can see the girl’s thighs, breasts and naval, which is a no-no in Zambian culture, and the pregnant girl jumping while a white man is chasing her with a camera shouldn’t happen during pregnancy only unless he is the father.”
Dr. Mkwesha said that the campaign is not normal and does not portray African girls from an African perspective.
“Why aren’t there any credits for the picture and video given to Zambians?” she said. “Even if Plan Finland said they got in touch with Plan Zambia and asked for their advice, they should have taken the backseat role and worked in collaboration with the African feminist there.”
The researcher expressed concern for the girl’s future saying that the campaign because it is global and internet exposure, which is accessible everywhere, it will and may destroy her life because she has become visible in a negative way, even in her community. The child born will in the future still come across this advert and the mother posing erotically. “Has anybody asked about the welfare of that child?”
“It’s always the same argument when so-called well-intentioned white people intend to do good for some poor African girl,” she said. “The intentions do not justify the means in this case.”
Plan Finland’s Acting Director of Fundraising Eva Anttila was quoted in YLE News as saying that, “We wanted to talk about it [childhood pregnancy in Africa] in a new way. We chose to mimic another genre of advertising [fashion] to create an element of surprise so we used a made-up maternity line to ensure it would stop people.”
Children’s Ombudsman Tuomas Kurttila raised some questions about the campaign and said that just getting the child’s approval is not enough.
“Even if they would have said that it’s ok for them or would even have applied to be this kind of campaign face or model, it can be that it is not in the best interests of this child,” Kurttila was quoted as saying in YLE News. “So it’s always adults’ and organizations’ responsibility to take care of children’s rights. And it’s not always the case that a child’s opinion and the best interests of the child are the same.”
Dr. Mkwesha was surprised by the children’s ombudsman answer.
“Why is he now concerned and why not before?”
Dr. Mkwesha is determined to have an earnest debate about the ordeal.
“We need to push this case into a serious public discussion and even international spaces as much as possible,” she concluded.