Mutilation has been a part of culture in Somaliland for centuries. But girls there tell Martin Bentham it is time for attitudes to change
The poster over the main street in Boroma, Somaliland, has a simple warning emblazoned on it in bold print.
“FGM increases risk of complications during childbirth,” it tells passers-by, reinforcing the message with “Hands off!” and “Stop Female Genital Mutilation!”
Similar billboards, written in Somali, are outside the university and elsewhere in the centre of the busy town, close to the Ethiopian border. Their prominent location reflects the increasing intensity of a campaign to stop mutilation, after centuries in which the practice has been a central feature of cultural and religious beliefs.
Such beliefs mean FGM remains almost universal in Somaliland, with official estimates indicating that 98 per cent of women have had their genitals cut and sometimes sewn up as well.
Campaigner: village leader Said Farah Abdullah Mutilation remains legal, and openly advocated by some as a protection for girls against promiscuity, social shame, and rejection by prospective husbands. Support for the practice was illustrated this month in another Somaliland town, when an anti-FGM poster identical to the one in Boroma was torn down by protesters after Friday prayers. They claimed its message was un-Islamic.
But attitudes are beginning to change. The government of Somaliland — an autonomous region of Somalia — is preparing a law to stop the worst forms of FGM. Its badge is on the poster. Religious leaders are starting to offer a new interpretation of Islamic law that prohibits sewing and reduces cutting.
Educational campaigns have been launched, teaching girls about their rights and the damaging health consequences of FGM. These are generating increasing opposition to mutilation among the younger generation.
In the remote rural settlement of Xoorey, at a meeting with the charity World Vision, which is providing FGM awareness tuition, one schoolgirl after another spoke out against the practice and told of the trauma they suffered.
Hoda Saleban, 15, said she had undergone “sunna” FGM, involving removal of part of the clitoris — but now believed it was neither culturally nor religiously justified. “I was at home and my mother called a traditional birth attendant who did the sunna one,” she said. “But I will not do it. I remember the pain that I had that day and I don’t want my daughter to be circumcised that way.”
Protection: Nimco Eid, anti FGM campaigner Mariam Abdi, also 15, said she was cut at six, but now knew about the health problems. These include a heightened risk of infections, difficulty during labour and potential for stillbirth, and fistula, a condition linked to FGM which causes incontinence. She added: “It was a bad culture and a bad practice before. It was like a kind of punishment. They did a bad thing to me and I don’t want to do that to my daughters. They were cutting part of the genitals. It is not good for health.”
Sainab Abdi, 11, suffered FGM aged five and said she did not agree that “cutting a part of a woman” was right.
But, in a sign of how dfficult it is to change attitudes, 12-year-old Nimco Ahmed said she still believed in mutilation, despite giving a vivid account of the trauma she faced: “I was eight years old. It was not only me: there were another three girls. My mother called a traditional birth attendant. Then my mother and some other women were holding my shoulders and legs.
“I was feeling afraid and it was very painful. She was using the blades and it took about 30 minutes. They tied my legs together after they did it. I was in bed for three days. I was in pain.
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“But I will do it with my daughters. I have heard it is a bad thing to do, but in our community I believe that every girl should have it done.” Most views in Xoorey do appear to have changed, however. Said Farah Abdullah, 54, a village leader with six daughters, said he had circumcised the elder two, but left the younger four unharmed after being told by a preacher that mutilation was contrary to Islamic teaching.
“I believe that FGM is a bad, bad thing which has affected our grandmothers, mothers and daughters,” he said. “It was against sharia. Now in this community we are strongly against FGM. Democracy is springing. People are realising that everyone has the right to choose what to do with their bodies.”
Asha Omer, an elderly woman, said girls in Xoorey had been cut at the age of 10, but that had changed. Her stepdaughter Sahra Jeh, 13, had not had FGM as a result. “In this community they have told us we should not circumcise our daughters so we don’t anymore,” said Asha.
Sahra added: “I’m very happy not to have been circumcised. I have had a lot of information about FGM and feel bad when I hear that other girls have been circumcised.” What happens in Somaliland is highly significant for the British fight to stop mutilation: the prevalence of FGM among Somali females in Britain is thought to be similarly high.
Hands off: posters warning of the dangers of FGM have been erected in Boroma The Department for International Development is supporting anti-FGM efforts in Somaliland, and provides funding for projects to improve girls’ rights and opportunities.
Nimco Eid, 27, a World Vision child protection officer who has been leading the charity’s work on FGM there, said success would take years to achieve, but they were gaining results: “It has not been easy to come out and talk about it because it is a cultural belief. But now we have the support of religious leaders, community leaders and parents.
“They understand these problems will continue when their girls are married, when they are pregnant, and afterwards. You can even show up on Somali TV and talk about this.”
She said the typical age at which FGM is inflicted was between six and 11. She had been cut at seven. “If I knew my parents were going to do it now I would say no. I remember the traditional birth attendants coming, carrying a big bag with all the things. Then my aunt forced me to lie down and they did it to me.
“Afterwards I couldn’t go to the toilet because it was very painful. My mother beat me with a stick saying that I must. I want FGM to go from this country. I can’t tolerate girls undergoing what I did.”
- Anyone wishing to help improve children’s lives in Somaliland and other overseas countries can find out more by contacting World Vision UK on 01908 84 10 10 or at www.worldvision.org.uk .