Halima [not her real name], a mother of five girls, shudders whenever she remembers how she suffered after undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM/Cutting), a practice still widespread in Somalia.
"I will not put my daughters through it," Halima told IRIN in Bosasso, the commercial capital of the self-declared autonomous region of Puntland, where an estimated 98 percent of girls still undergo the cut.
Her daughters are aged two to 15 years. "I do not want them to go through that in life," she said. "Every time I get my periods I suffer incredible pain to the point where I cannot work. I have had infections that led to miscarriage and bleedings."
The practice in Somalia involves the cutting of the external genitalia and sewing up the genitalia, leaving a small hole for urine and blood to pass, known as pharaonic circumcision.
FGM is illegal in Puntland, but is a prevalent traditional practice. It is also commonly performed throughout Somalia and in parts of the East African region.
No statistics exist to show prevalence trends in Somalia. According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), it is primarily performed on girls between the ages of four and 11 and is regarded as “cleansing” a girl child in Somali culture.
But as a sign of improved awareness of its dangers, activists in Bosasso have set up organisations to help women such as Halima and to lobby for the eradication of FGM.
Winnie Meme, coordinator of the We are Women Activists (WAWA), an umbrella organisation of 34 women's groups in central and northern Somalia, said the groups had embarked on an anti-FGM awareness campaign to highlight the dangers and convince communities to abandon it.
Photo: Abdi S. Hassan/IRIN
|A sign against FGM|
Progress has been slow, Meme said, attributing this to resistance from mothers who believe their daughters would be unmarriageable if they are not circumcised.
However, Zeinab Haji, a WAWA board member, told IRIN they were making progress in urban areas.
"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."
Involving men, particularly elders and religious leaders, in the campaign to eradicate FGM had also been useful. "Their involvement has removed some of the myths that somehow the practice has a religious significance," Haji said.
According to Ahmed Sheikh Abdirihman, professor of Islamic law at the East African University in Bosasso, FGM has no basis in Islam.
"It is 'haram' [prohibited] in Islam to do harm to the human body and there is no question that this practice causes harm," he told IRIN. "We tell everyone that they should not be fooled into thinking that this practice is condoned by our religion. Nothing can be further from the truth."
Zeinab said more and more mothers were coming out against the practice, refusing to allow their daughters to be cut. But to have a bigger impact, more needed to be done in rural areas where the practice has most hold.
|It is 'haram' [prohibited] in Islam to do harm to the human body and there is no question that this practice causes harm|
"We need to take our awareness campaign to the rural areas in a big way," she said.
Puntland officials said they were encouraging civil society organisations to fight FGM and making it part of the fight for human rights and women’s rights.
"The ministry has taken this issue to the highest levels of the government and we are treating it as part of our fight against gender-based violence," Saido Hussein Ali, director-general of the Puntland Ministry of Women Development and Family Affairs, said.