Fighting female genital mutilation in Somalia

Sunday, March 09, 2014

By Yassin Juma

MOGADISHU ”“ In a rural village in Somalia's central Hiraan region, a group of women gathers under a tree to listen to Fardowsa Ahmed.

Ahmed's mission over the last nine years has been to combat the widespread phenomenon of female genital mutilation (FGM).

It has not been an easy task in a country in which the practice is deeply entrenched in local culture.

"Fighting FGM is like going against the tide of public opinion in Somalia," said Ahmed, who was herself subjected to the practice at six years old and thus has firsthand experience of the dangers of FGM.

"It [FGM] has been with us for generations," she told Anadolu Agency. "Changing the Somali mindset isn't an easy mission."

FGM is defined as the cutting or removal ”“ partial or total ”“ of the external female genitalia for cultural or other non-medical reasons.

It is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and eight years old.

Somalia is believed to have the highest FGM prevalence rate in the world.

According to the World Health Organization, at least 98 percent of Somali women have undergone the procedure, which is traditionally performed with a knife or razor blade.

FGM is an honored tradition in Somalia, with women who escape the practice often perceived as social outcasts.

An uncircumcised Somali woman, for example, cannot be married off by her family.

So deeply entrenched is the tradition that it has even been exported to the West, particularly the US and UK, both of which are home to significant numbers of Somalis who left their native country following the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

The UK government in particular has had a difficult time eradicating the practice among immigrant communities from Somalia, West Africa and some parts of Asia.  

Among the risks associated with FGM are long-term sexual and psychological effects, severe bleeding, childbirth complications and even ”“ in some cases ”“ death.

-Challenging -

Ahmed, for her part, complains that Somali authorities aren't committed to eradicating the practice.

"One of the major challenges in my mission to eradicate FGM in Somalia has been the lack of goodwill by the authorities," she said.

"Previous and current governments have been less interested in eradicating FGM," the activist added. "In a country devastated by decades of war, it isn't a priority."

Somalia has remained in the grip of violence since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

The situation appears to have improved recently, however, with the installation of a new government and intervention by African Union troops tasked with countering an insurgency waged by the Al-Shabaab militant group.

In 2012, Somalia's new constitution outlawed all forms of FGM. But, two years later, a draft decree to this effect still awaits cabinet approval.

"The government would be quick to endorse an impeachment [of a political figure], but slow to react to an issue like FGM, which affects millions of people," Somali journalist Mohamed Hirmoge told AA.

Last December, Somalia lawmakers voted to oust prime minister Abdi Farah Shirdon and his cabinet after 14 months in office.

Khadija Diriye, newly-appointed minister for women and human rights, is hoping to change the traditional mindset.

Less than one month since being sworn in, Diriye asserts that her number-one priority is wiping out FGM once and for all.

"I'm positive that during my time the cabinet will meet to officially criminalize female circumcision in Somalia," she told AA upon her return from an anti-FGM conference in Djibouti.

"It's a top priority for me. We can't talk about women's rights while FGM still exists," insisted Diriye, a former lawmaker known for championing women's issues.

But changing the perceptions of conservative Somalis remains an uphill task ”“ both for the government and anti-FGM activists.

"Most Somalis, even those educated, lack awareness of the dangers of FGM," Ahmed lamented.

"Awareness is the key to eradicating this ritual, which has caused millions of women to suffer in silence," she added.

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