‘A Girl from Mogadishu’ who underwent FGM twice

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On a bright sunny morning, Ifrah Ahmed, then aged eight, looked forward to celebrating a special day in the Muslim calendar, together with her family.
The day was Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims to mark the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Ms Ifrah was even more excited when her grandmother summoned her together with her sister and two cousins to her old mabati hut that morning.

The summons, she thought to herself, was in relation to the Eid al-Fitr celebrations. She hurriedly gathered her sister and cousins and rushed to the hut.
She was, however, taken aback when they found an atmosphere that did not depict any impending celebrations.

Inside the tiny makeshift hut, on the outskirts of Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia, were four worn out mattresses spread on the floor. Their uncle, a medical doctor, was inside the hut too.

Also present was her father, grandmother and a few other relatives. They were all dead silent and looked gloomy, she says.

She vividly recalls seeing a small sufuria (metallic pot) with boiling water next to her uncle. Inside the sufuria was a dirty razor blade that had blood stains.

It was being sterilised in readiness for a cultural practice in the community. It then dawned on her that they had been summoned so that they could be subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM).

Many years later, we meet Ifrah on a chilly evening, during the commemoration of the International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM at the Embassy of Ireland in Nairobi.

She is here to witness the screening of A Girl from Mogadishu, a film based on a true story inspired by her life and work.

The film follows Ifrah from childhood in war-torn Somalia where she was born and subjected to FGM, to Ireland where she is trafficked as a teenager, given political asylum and eventually granted nationality.

Painful memories

She takes Nation.Africa back to the Eid al-Fitr day when her father, assisted by his sisters, tied their legs and hands to a bed before their doctor uncle cut each of them, in turns.

They lay on the torn mattresses on the floor as the outdated cultural practice was performed on them.

“It was the most painful experience in my life. I still remember my grandmother holding my hands tightly as my uncle cut me. No amount of screams and pleas would help change their minds from cutting us,” Ifrah narrates.

For the next 40 days, they remained in their house as they recuperated from the cut, she recalls.

“This period was marked with unimaginable pain. We were hardly able to walk and most of the time we remained tied to our bed. It was a horrible experience.”

Ifrah Ahmed talks to diplomats at the residence of the Irish Ambassador in Nairobi on February 6, 2023.

Evans Habil I Nation Media Group

Sadly, during their healing journey, one of her cousins became very ill after developing some infection that saw her stomach swell, culminating in her death.

Her death was devastating to them. They feared that the same calamity would befall them. Although she made it through the healing process, she was not all that lucky.

Five years later while aged 13, she was subjected to a second cut, done by the same uncle. Her grandmother reasoned that the first cut was not effectively done.

“I underwent Type 3 FGM… it is the most painful thing a person can go through. I now have to live with the scars for the rest of my life,” the mother of one tells Nation.Africa.

In 2006, at the peak of the war in Somalia, Ifrah was elated when her aunt confided in her that she was organising to get out of the country. Her aunt told her she was working with some people who would sneak her into the US.

By this time, she lived apart from her family, the majority of whom were displaced by the war.

“For a long time, I lived with my grandmother. The war had separated all of us. I, however, later met my father after I returned to Somalia before he died,” Ifrah tells Nation.Africa.

She fled the country at the age of 17. Her joy of leaving the war-torn country was, however, short-lived after the smugglers instead abandoned her in Ireland where she got asylum before eventually being granted nationality.

While here, she devoted her life to help eradicate the vice, which was also rife in the country especially among the immigrants.

In 2012, her anti-FGM crusade bore fruit after Ireland established legislation banning the practice.

“The anti-FGM Act was the first law President Michael Higgins signed into law after coming to power in 2012. It was a humbling moment for me. The law has helped see a reduction in the menace,” Ifrah says.

Data released by Ireland’s Central Statistics Office, recently, shows 5,790 women and girls living in the country have undergone FGM. A further 1,632 girls are also estimated to be at a high risk of the vice.

Ifrah’s global campaign against FGM saw her address the European Union (EU) parliament in Brussels, Belgium, in 2013, when she implored member states to join the fight to end FGM, globally.

She established the Ifrah Foundation in Ireland in 2010, through which she advocates the eradication of FGM in her motherland.

In 2020, the Somalian government agreed to register her Dear Daughter campaign with the slogan ‘My Daughter, My Future’.

It is a national campaign that creates awareness of the dangers of FGM at the grassroots. It ropes in young boys and men, politicians, government officials, religious leaders and the media.

It underscores the integral part that men play in the fight against the vice, making them part and parcel of efforts to end FGM.

The Dear Daughter drive gets mothers to write letters pledging to protect their daughters and to bear witness to that promise; or making a video on the same, which is published online.

Bodily autonomy

The anti-FGM activist argues that by pledging not to circumcise their daughters, Somali parents are not only protecting them from the practice but also respecting their bodily autonomy.

“The Dear Daughter campaign is a game changer. It gives voice to the grassroots to come together for change. This means women and girls will finally be safe from the brutal cut that undermines their health,” she adds.

Ifrah is also working with UN Women, and in 2021, she signed a partnership to eradicate FGM in Somalia.

Through the collaboration, they have reached 25,000 women, men, boys and girls through advocacy and community outreach activities, to address underlying negative social norms and attitudes that condone gender inequality.

Somalia has one of the highest rates of FGM in the world, with an estimated 98 per cent of women and girls aged 15 to 49 having undergone the procedure.

According to the 2020 Somali Health and Demographic Survey, the majority of girls and women in Somalia were cut between the ages of five and nine.

And while the prohibitions against FGM are contained in federal legal and regulatory frameworks, the Jubaland Federal FGM Bill has been drafted and presented to the cabinet but has yet to be endorsed.

Recent estimates indicate that more than 2.1 million girls in Somalia are at risk of FGM between 2015 and 2030. More than 200 million women and girls alive today have been cut across the world.

Niyi Ojuolape, the UNFPA Representative in Somalia, says his organisations is committed to providing access to sexual and reproductive health services, and treatment of FGM complications.

“We are also undertaking activities to eradicate the practice through media initiatives, advocacy, awareness raising, and community empowerment.

“We believe that working with communities and stakeholders is the only way to build a world where FGM is no longer accepted or practised, and where all women and girls can live healthy, productive lives,” Mr Ojuolape tells Nation.Africa.

Girls and women subjected to FGM are at risk of infection, birth complications, haemorrhage, and even death.

They are also vulnerable to early marriage, dropping out of school, mental health disorders, and reduced opportunities for growth, development, and sustainable incomes.

The movie, A Girl from Mogadishu, premiered at the Edinburgh film festival in 2019. It has been a central tool in Ifrah’s advocacy work in the fight against the oppressive cultural practice.

The screening of the movie titled ‘A Girl from Mogadishu’ at Irish Ambassador’s residence in Nairobi on February 23, 2023.

Evans Habil I Nation Media Group

Determined to end the painful ordeal she underwent years ago, Ifrah travelled back to Somalia several years ago to reconcile with her grandmother.
Before that, however, she sought to know why she had been so cruel to her.

“She acknowledged that she was wrong. She, however, told me she was just following what the culture stipulated at the time. She added that she did not hate me and actually loved me very much as her granddaughter. I forgave her,” she says.

The mother of one singles out leaders as a big let-down for lacking political goodwill to protect women and girls. She notes that Somalia and other countries where FGM is practised lack serious leadership, hence not committed to ending the menace.

She also calls on Muslim religious leaders to denounce the vice, noting they wield a lot of influence that can have a positive impact on the fight.
Her goal is to see Somalia enact an anti-FGM law to ease the fight.