In Somalia, over 90 per cent or more of girls and women, have been subjected to female genital mutilation, or FGM. Despite the practice having devastating health ramifications for women and girls - including pain, bleeding, permanent disability and even death - discussion over how to end the harmful tradition, remains taboo.
The United Nations has called for collaboration at all levels, and across all sectors of society across the world, to protect millions at risk from FGM every year.
As the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation is marked on 6 February, the UN sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA, continues to lead the UN effort to end FGM.
Last fall, and in collaboration with the Ifrah Foundation, the UN agency launched the Dear Daughter campaign, as part of the effort to end FGM once and for all. The idea is to get individual parents not to cut their daughters. Through letter-writing, they pledge instead, to protect them, and support their right to govern their own bodies.
‘Dear Daughter’ works towards ending FGM in Somalia, which has one of the highest prevalence rates of the practice in the world. To date, 100 Somali mothers have signed the pledge.
By targeting rural and urban individuals and communities, that are making an extraordinary commitment, to change the FGM narrative. For Nkiru I. Igbokwe, gender-based violence specialist at UNFPA in Somalia, it is “accelerating the voices of women and men alike, to end FGM in the country”.
As part of the campaign, women living in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of the capital Mogadishu - home to 280 households that fled Danunay village nearly 250 kilometres away, due to insurgent violence - have been learning about the harmful effects of FGM.
Halima*, 50, a mother of five daughters and five sons, was among them. As a camp gatekeeper and a community member with influence, she was identified as someone who could advocate to help end the harmful practice that she and her first daughter had also endured.
Like so many other women in her community, Halima underwent FGM as a child, subjecting her to lifelong health problems.
“The procedure was painful, with no anesthesia. I bled for days,” she recalled. “I was in bed for more than three months and urinating was a problem”.
When Halima reached adolescence, passing menstrual blood was also difficult, and as a newlywed, sex with her husband was a painful experience. When she became an expectant mother, childbirth was excruciating with labour lasting for days, putting her life at risk.
Despite her suffering, Halima allowed her first daughter to be cut, just like her mother had done.
‘She felt the pain’
“My daughter underwent the Sunna type of FGM (removal of part or all of the clitoris), and she felt the pain I have been through,” Halima said. But because it was not the more severe ‘pharaonic’ procedure (stitching the opening closed), people insulted them, she said, saying her daughter was unclean.
“Throughout the training course, I had flashback memories of how the practice has badly impacted my life,” she said.
Three years ago, a young girl in the same camp died as a result of FGM, and Halima started galvanizing the community, to try and make sure the tragedy is never repeated.
Changing the future for Somali girls
The Ifrah Foundation, together with the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, distributed UNFPA-supplied radio transmitters to 100 households so residents could listen to awareness campaigns and information.
"It has been a long-standing dream of mine to work to save girls from the unnecessary pain and suffering I endured as a result of FGM,” said survivor Ifrah Ahmed, founder of the foundation that bears her name. “Halima is an example of how we can change the future for all Somali girls”, she added.
Halima’s advocacy has expanded beyond FGM. She encourages pregnant and lactating mothers to visit health centres and raises awareness over sexual and gender-based violence.
She also notes that community members used to stay silent about rape due to fear of stigmatization, but now they seek help.
According to UNFPA, because of her leadership, almost 100 mothers have pledged not to practice female genital mutilation, sparing about 200 girls in the settlement.
“I don’t want my other daughters and other young girls to go through the pain we have gone through,” Halima said.
The numbers across the world
According to WHO, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM in 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, where FGM is practiced.
Only in Somalia, based on the 2020 Somali Health and Demographic Survey, 99 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 in Somalia, have been subjected to FGM, the majority between ages five and nine. The survey also reports that 72 per cent of women believe it is an Islamic requirement, though some religious leaders have said Islam actually condemns it.
In 2020, UNFPA provided 52,225 Somali women and girls protection, prevention or care services related to female genital mutilation. While there is no national legislation outlawing the practice, Puntland state passed a FGM Zero Tolerance Bill last year.
This year, WHO will launch a training manual on person-centered communication, a counselling approach that encourages health care providers to challenge their FGM-related attitudes, and build their communication skills to effectively provide FGM prevention counselling.
UNFPA Somalia/Tobin Jones
A girl plays with her younger sister at a maternal child health care centre in Hargeisa, Somaliland.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the risk of female genital mutilation continuing unfettered, with the UN predicting than an additional two million girls will be victimized in the next ten years.
Prolonged school closures have provided cover for girls recovering from FGM. In addition, movement restrictions have prevented campaigners against FGM from accessing some villages.
In 2018, it was estimated by UNFPA that globally 68 million girls were at risk; now the figure stands at 70 million.
*The name in the story has been changed for privacy and protection.