"Dignity, respect and bravery are guiding principles for our work on female genital mutilation (FGM)"
I left Somaliland when I was 9 years old with my mother, brother, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was the civil war and we were lucky enough to reach Canada as refugees. I remember that time as a pleasant, warm, loving time where my cousins and I had a lot of freedom to play, walk to school and daydream.
I am from Somaliland so of course I am part of the 97-98% or so of girls who undergo the female genital cut. I think it happened when I was around seven years old. I remember being restrained. I remember strangers being around and I remember peeing standing up and it burning. These memories don’t come up often and they don’t cause me pain. It’s a distant, childhood event. A cousin and a niece my age were there and we went through it together and afterwards our mothers and aunts took care of us.
I grew up, went to school, questioned the world and my role in it for a time, got married, had kids and eventually went back to Somaliland. There I met Edna Adan Ismail and asked to volunteer with her. She opened her office, hospital and life to me and I became immersed in the maternal health issues of the women in my home country.
Most were not as lucky as I had been. Because of FGM/C (female genital mutilation/circumcision), most had experienced recurring infections and difficulties in child birth. Some had formed cysts, some became infertile, and some had obstetric fistula. But few linked these problem to the cutting. At SOFHA (Somaliland Family Health Association) we’ve been working to help women (and men) understand these links and get the help they need. That’s only a part of the work.
The effort to end FGM/C in Somaliland goes back almost 40 years. FGM/C programs and projects have been happening for at least the last 25 years. We’re now at the point where it’s recognized as a legitimate, critical, health and social issue. We’re on the cusp of a law against the practice and I have personally witnessed a transformation among the individuals who engage in this work.
NGO and government staff tasked with working on FGM/C used to go into communities apologetically, “Sorry but we have to talk to you about this ‘issue’, we know it’s unpleasant but bear with us” to “I have 2 daughters and I have not cut them. This is a terrible practice and we must stop it now”. It fills me with great joy to see young women and men taking this personal stance and doing it confidently and proudly.
But it’s not easy for most people to do this. It certainly wasn’t for me. This is personal. This is private. Before I got into the work I might have said, “What business is it of yours anyway? Do you really want me digging into your private life? Into your past and history? I am not a victim. I may be a survivor but not in the way you think and not for the reasons you imagine. I am bigger than this. This doesn’t define me.”
And it may not define most Somali women. I think that’s what confuses many people. Maybe it’s because it happens in childhood and those memories are lost or hidden or maybe because mothers and grandmothers have such good intentions or maybe because it’s so universal within the community? That’s why it’s a completely different experience for a young Somali girl born and brought up somewhere else.
The experience is very personal and it varies from person to person. Dignity, respect and bravery are guiding principles for our work on female genital mutilation.
In Somaliland, a dynamic young generation connected to the world through the internet, and integrated multi-pronged FGM/C programming, is helping us to influence a generation of Somalis to abandon the cut and break the cycle. It’s still some distance away but we see the end in sight.
Words Amal Ahmed, the executive director of our Member Association in Somaliland (SOFHA)