‘I am convinced that the practice of FGM can be stopped in Somalia’

Women in Somalia need our support. As refugees, we appreciate the life we have in Ireland

Ifrah Ahmed, an activist and survivor of female genital mutilation, hopes to bring her anti-FGM campaign to Somalia, her home country. Here she shares her personal story of FGM. Video: Kathleen Harris


I was born and brought up in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. In 1996 I left the city with some members of my family in order to escape the conflict and chaos.

In 2006, when I was 17, I came to Dublin as an asylum seeker.

During the past eight years in Ireland, I managed to set up the Ifrah Foundation to campaign, in particular, against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is now illegal in Ireland, thanks to the politicians who supported me.

I always wanted to support my people and my country, and dreamed of going back to Somalia to make a valuable contribution to the society. My dreams came true when I met the president of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, last September in Brussels during the New Deal conference about Somalia. I was able to interview the president about women’s rights issues, including FGM.

As a result of this, I decided to go to Somalia to see what I could do for my country. I landed at Mogadishu airport on March 21st for the first time since I left in 2006.

I always wanted to visit and to help my beloved country. During my eight years in Ireland I have gained valuable experience, knowledge and understanding about how a democratic country functions. A democracy, in turn, helps its citizens to realise their full potential, making a huge difference to their lives.

Before I left to go to Somalia, I spoke to The Irish Times about FGM.

I mentioned that I was going to see my grandmother and that I was going to ask her why she had me circumcised by her brother, a doctor. A professional must know the health problems associated with FGM and he should not have performed the operation, but he did.

I wanted to have a good chat about it with her and ask her why she did it.

Unfortunately, after the article was published in The Irish Times, it was reproduced in the Somalia media. I was scared so I left it a fortnight longer before going on my trip. I never thought it would be picked up by the Somali media.

My grandmother found out about the article and she asked me whether this was the reason I was coming to visit her, so I never got the chance to ask her the questions I wanted her to answer.

It was difficult to say anything to her. I had to keep it to myself.

Near the house where I was staying, there were small camps that I used to visit a lot, and where I talked to families and children. One day, I was playing with some of the children and I saw three girls who were jumping and dancing.

When I asked the girls why they were happy, I was told that they were to have their FGM operations within a couple of days.

As a campaigner against FGM, I was very surprised to see this. I spoke to a friend and said to him that I had to leave Somalia on Friday, which was the date scheduled for their operations, and I asked for his advice.

Wise advice
I really liked his wise advice, which was that I go and see the family before the day of the operation. So I went to see them. After discussing the issues in great detail and explaining to them that they were harming their children, I convinced them to stop the operation.

I paid them some money and made them swear on the holy Qur’an.

I also gave more money to be given to the women who conduct the operation so they would feel happy that they were paid for the procedure even though it was cancelled.

The country has made significant progress and moved away from an era of chaos, instability, warlordism, extremism and piracy to an era of peace and stability.

The government’s priorities are security, stabilisation and the spread of democracy. Its vision is to hold fair and free elections by September 2016.

Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group linked to al-Qaeda, remains a threat as it still holds some territory in the south of Somalia. It has been trying to destabilise the government by conducting suicide attacks and roadside bombings. The threat they pose is real and far from over.

Huge problems
There are still huge problems, and many of the things I have seen in Somalia are worse than what I have seen reported on the news in Afghanistan and Pakistan, especially for women.

What I see in Somalia is different from what I see in Ireland. In Ireland every woman has a voice.

In Somalia, if you have money, you have some influence, but if you are poor, women are treated like pieces of meat.

Women in Somalia need our support. As refugees, we appreciate the life we have in Ireland.

The life I’ve seen in Somalia is not a life anybody can live. It hurts my heart to see how women and children are treated. Young boys carry guns. They do not know anything except guns.

In Somalia the practice of FGM is seen as part of a culture that was inherited through generations.

They see that the girls are protected from having sex before being married. This is very important in Somalia and any man who is marrying will seek a girl who is a virgin and the only way to know that she is a virgin is to have the FGM operation. Some people say this is a religious duty.

However, it is very clear that Islam doesn’t encourage FGM and, rather, considers it a violation of human rights. But religious leaders don’t advocate against FGM because they see it as part of the culture, and Somalis are very much attached to their culture and religion.

I am convinced that the practice of FGM can be stopped in Somalia, but it needs real effort, commitment and leadership from the community. It requires advocacy, awareness, education and pressure on government leaders to ban it.

Yes, I strongly believe it can be done with exerted efforts and leadership on this issue.

In conversation with

A specialist clinical service for the treatment of FGM is opening at the Irish Family Planning Association clinic on Cathal Brugha Street, Dublin, tomorrow.

See ifpa.ie or tel. 01-8727088

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