Over half a million women and girls in America are affected by female genital mutilation (FGM), and thankfully, people here are finally starting to talk about it and take action — the first-ever US trial against doctors who perform these procedures is about to take place in Detroit. But much more needs to be done to end FGM in the US and worldwide.
Currently, more than 200 million people around the world have undergone FGM, and where I live in rural Somalia almost every single woman and girl has undergone the procedure. In fact, 98% of Somali women and girls have been affected, which is the highest prevalence rate of anywhere in the world. Over 80% are cut between the ages of five and nine — old enough to remember what happened, but not “too old” that they have already experienced much independence. Almost two thirds of Somali women undergo infibulation, the most extreme form of FGM, which leaves girls with their labia stitched together following the excision of the clitoris. This makes urinating and menstruating almost impossible, as a girl is forced to do so through a hole the size of a matchstick. Of course, that's not to say that any form of FGM is more acceptable than others; it is always a human rights violation.
Last year, I met a 15-year-old named Istar, who had been married off to a 70-year-old man in Eastern Somalia. He paid 10 camels and a gun for her. Istar had been subjected to infibulation. Like many girls who have undergone this type of FGM, her new husband was unable to penetrate her during sex. So he used a dagger to cut her open. But he did it with so much force that the dagger went deep, affecting the vaginal walls and cutting into her cervix. Istar started bleeding profusely, forcing her family to seek medical help and counselling for her. Although she is now out of immediate danger, Istar is deeply traumatised and, unsurprisingly, does not want to go back to her husband.
Although religion is sometimes used as an excuse, there is no religious obligation for girls to undergo FGM. And unfortunately, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum: FGM is directly related to other forms of violence against women and girls. Domestic violence is also prevalent in Somalia, and over three quarters of married women aged 15 to 49 think that a beating can be justified in certain circumstances. So-called “child marriage” is highly prevalent, too, and is often seen as a driver for FGM occurring in the first place.
Over 80% are cut between the ages of five and nine — old enough to remember what happened, but not 'too old' that they have already experienced much independence.
And now, there seems to be another, more timely cause for concern: After several months of extreme drought, it has finally rained in Somalia. This is a huge relief to many, but it also means that girls now face an enormous risk as families, which had previously been preoccupied with getting enough food, have refocused their energies. Schools are now also closed for the summer, and many town dwellers have moved back to rural areas. Families are more likely to think it’s the “right time” for them to hold FGM ceremonies, and girls are at extreme risk.
As a survivor myself, I know the effects of FGM firsthand, and I wanted to do something to help end it. So, in 1999, I set up The Galkayo Center, which aims to end FGM and other forms of violence against girls. We work at various levels, but our main focus is on education. We provide free schooling to more than 800 poor, orphaned, and displaced girls in primary school, and to around 1,600 girls over the age of 13 who are in “non-formal” education. Nationally, only 24.6% of girls in Somalia attend school, but as a result of our work, girls’ enrolment in northeast Somalia has increased to 40%, the highest rate in the country. We teach each of these girls about the harms of FGM and how it can be ended. We try to persuade these girls that their destinies are their own to make – they can help break the cycle of abuse in their own lives and in their families.
The Somali government has promised to ban FGM for several years, but has yet to follow through on doing so. Since 2014, however, the most severe form of infibulation has been illegal in the Puntland region, thanks to a presidential decree. This is part of a recent wave of bans across the African continent. Nigeria and the Gambia both made it illegal to perform FGM in 2015. This leaves Somalia in a small group of countries — including Liberia, Mali, Sudan, and Sierra Leone — which have yet to enact laws against it.
Unfortunately, only 33% of Somali women and girls think FGM should end, although this number is somewhat higher for wealthier and more educated demographics. Among that 33%, though, there’s no reduction in prevalence between middle-aged women and adolescent girls. I know that we must still climb a huge mountain if this abuse is to be eliminated within our lifetime.
But I’m not deterred — my eyes are firmly on the goal. We can speed things up by getting money to the front lines, where it can be used effectively. There are so few of us working on this, and we cannot always reach everyone with such limited resources. To date, we have seen a big increase in awareness of the issue in the US and discussion at the international level, but those of us working at the local level have not been able to access enough funds to carry out our urgent work.
Changing the futures of girls in this region is my life’s mission, and I won’t stop until I have done my part to protect every single girl at risk. Hearing the experiences of girls like Istar — as I do almost every day — terrifies me, but it also drives me to keep going. I have no other option. The lives of Somali girls and women depend on it.