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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Intensive efforts reap progress towards ending female genital mutilation in Somalia

March 7, 2011
Iman Morooka

HARGEISA, northwest Somalia “Somaliland”: “It is a shame and a disgrace if a girl is uncut. She will be outcast and ostracized from her community”. This is what Ubah Abdillahi believed until she was convinced otherwise by the community education programme aiming to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia.

Ubah Abdillahi, mother of 5 girls and 3 boys, lives in Daami village in Hargeisa. She came to know about a programme run by NGO TOSTAN- supported by UNICEF- aiming to create community awareness around various issues including FGM/C, child rights, hygiene and sanitation, environment and health among others. She started to attend classes offered by the programme and participated in its activities.

“Before participating in this programme, I believed that all girls have to be cut, just like I was cut when I was a young girl. I cut my daughters because I always believed it was good for protecting girls from men. If the girl is not cut, she can’t get married either. This was done to me by my mother and I did the same to two of my five daughters.” said Ms. Abdullahi.

She recalled the pain she had to go through as a child when she had undergone the procedure. “I still remember how I cried of pain, and the problems I faced in urinating and menstruating. When I was giving birth they had to make cuts even sideways for the baby to come out. There are many problems but I didn’t question it [FGM] because it is our culture and tradition.”

According to the most recent statistics (MICS 2006)*, FGM in Somalia is almost universal. 98 per cent of women aged 15-49 have undergone the procedure, with 77 per cent of them subjected to the most severe form.

“I wouldn’t have been able to socialize and have friends if I wasn’t cut. It was considered a disgrace and people would gossip if a nurse wasn’t called to the house for opening the stitching after a woman gets married or for child birth.”

TOSTAN started its community advocacy work in Daami village in 2006 and formed the “Community Management Committee” which played a key role in engaging in discussions with the community and creating awareness on the harms of FGM. After three years of the programme’s inception, the people of Daami village publically declared abandonment of the practice. Ms. Abdullahi was one of the Committee members who were trained by TOSTAN.

“It took me time to understand and accept that circumcision is not good for girls. Even when I joined the programme in TOSTAN, I didn’t commit myself to anything at first. I was just learning about all sorts of things, then I came to realize that FGM is the cause of many health issues like infections. It was explained to me how girls who are not cut don’t have the same health problems during menstruation, intercourse and child birth. I also learned that not all Muslim women are circumcised. I started to believe that it is better not to have my girls cut.”

Ms. Abdullahi became an advocate who spoke out in and outside of her village urging people not to subject their girls to FGM.

Over a year has passed since Daami community declared abandoning FGM in 2009, but the Committee members are still active in their advocacy work. They meet regularly at the classroom provided by TOSTAN to discuss and exchange their experiences and plan joint activities within and outside their village, including writing and performing songs and plays.

So far, a total of 84 communities have been mobilized through this programme in Somalia. Of them, 28 communities including Daami village declared collective abandonment of FGM.

“It [the advocacy work] is not always easy, some people are accepting while others are not.” said Ms. Abdullahi. “I sometimes even have to resolve conflicts between couples, when the husband is opposing to FGM while the wife is still insisting to cut her daughters. I believe that education is very important for people to understand the harms of FGM, and perhaps the fact that men are better educated in our society, makes them more capable of opposing traditional practice.”

For a long time it’s been considered a taboo to discuss a sensitive subject like FGM in public. However change is gradually starting to happen in Somali communities. Ubah Abdullahi is just one of many mothers who have joined the fight against FGM.