SOMALIA: "One message" on FGM/C in Somaliland

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Hawa* is determined her young daughter will not undergo female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), which is widespread in Somalia's self-declared republic of Somaliland.

An estimated 90 percent of girls still undergo the procedure.

"I have suffered kidney problems, infections and miscarriages," said Hawa. "I dread the days when my period is close because of the pain I go through; it gets to the point where the pain makes it impossible to do anything. I don’t want my daughter subjected to this kind of life."

"Gudnin Fircooni", Pharaonic circumcision or infibulation, as practised in Somaliland, involves cutting off the external genitalia and sewing up the vagina, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual blood.

The practice is not illegal but the government’s gender policy was to discourage FGM/C, said Kinsi Hussein, an activist and deputy head of the Network of Anti-FGM in Somaliland (NAFIS).

Hussein told IRIN several organisations were involved in the campaign against FGM/C in Somaliland.

"We are now trying to speak with one voice and have one message," she said.

Although there are no statistics on prevalence in Somalia, Hussein said FGM/C was primarily performed on girls between the ages of four and 11 and was regarded as “cleansing” a girl child in Somali culture.

"Some people still believe that a girl is not ready for marriage until she is cut," she said.

Awareness campaigns

Hussein said NAFIS was engaged in awareness campaigns targeting "not only the mothers and the girls but the men, particularly the young men of marriageable age. We want to tell these young men that circumcision does not enhance or add to a girl's value as a wife and a mother."

However, Hussein said progress has been slow, attributing this to resistance from mothers and fathers who believe their daughters would be unmarriageable if they were not circumcised.

"We have been using the policy of total eradication as our guiding principle but it does not seem to be working as well as we would like," Hussein said.

"Elders and religious leaders are supporting our efforts and it is making a difference," she said. "However, it is not enough and more needs to be done."

Men’s support

Involving men, particularly religious leaders, in the campaign to eradicate FGM/C had been effective. "Their involvement has removed some of the myths that somehow the practice has a religious significance," Hussein said.

Sheikh Abdirahman Ibrahim, a Muslim scholar, said FGM/C was in "total contradiction" to Islamic teaching.

"It is haram [prohibited] to cause physical or psychological damage to the human body; there is no question that this practice does that and more," he told IRIN.

He said Somalis should not be fooled into thinking the practice was condoned by Islam. "FGM has no basis in Islam."

Ibrahim said schools should also participate in the eradication of FGM.

"We should put FGM in the education curriculum in health and religious subjects," he said. "If people see it not only as a women's issue but as a health and religious issue, it would have a much bigger impact."

Ibrahim said that as a religious person he would never allow his own daughters to be circumcised.

Signs of progress

Hussein said that despite the slow pace in persuading people to reject FGM, activists were making progress.

"This is a practice that has been going on for a very long time and it will take time to end it," she said. "Some 30 years ago I thought it was a religious obligation, today I know it is not."

As a sign of improved awareness of its dangers, Hussein said, activists in Somaliland were using training centres for women and schools to spread the message.

She said they were taking their campaign to rural areas where the practice was more rooted. "We are now engaged in coordinated campaigns in rural areas."

Hawa said she was optimistic that when her daughter had a daughter of her own, FGM would be "thing of the past".

*Not her real name