Somalia could soon pass legislation that bans all forms of female genital mutilation (FGM), thanks in part to Ifrah Ahmed, a former refugee and Irish national who returned to Somalia to campaign for its eradication.
Somalia has the highest rate of female genital mutilation in the world, with an estimated 95 percent of girls cut between the ages of four and 11. If passed, a bill to ban the practice, currently being reviewed by the country’s religious leaders and its cabinet, would mean parents could be prosecuted for circumcising their daughters.
Ifrah Ahmed, who has battled serious opposition from conservative members of the community in her effort to push the issue to the top of the government agenda, says the bill would be a huge step for women’s rights in Somalia. While on a recent trip to London, she told Women and Girls Hub she’s hopeful the legislation could be passed as soon as the end of this year.
Women and Girls Hub: How did you go from being a social activist in Ireland to advising the Somali government on FGM?
Ifrah Ahmed: I was campaigning on FGM for the European Parliament when I met the former minister for women Khadijo Mohamed Dirie. She said I’d be the perfect person to work on this issue and invited me to work with her department to form a national strategy. I returned to Somalia in 2014 for the first time since fleeing as an asylum seeker aged 18 in 2006. I worked on several different social policies including child and sexual rights, but FGM was the one closest to my heart. It was very difficult to change people’s mentality in the beginning, but I felt I had come to Somalia for one reason and I had to complete my mission.
Women and Girls Hub: How do you change people’s minds about an issue that is so deeply ingrained in society?
Ifrah Ahmed: It was really hard. Old men would stand up and say, “Go back home!” They said I had become a Westerner and didn’t understand Somali society any more. I knew I could return to Europe and continue living my beautiful life but I wanted to stay and help these young girls. So I started talking to people in the community, asking them what they know about FGM. I asked them what benefit FGM had brought any woman they know. I tried to make them listen to my voice instead of complaining. In 2015 I was nominated for Humanitarian of the Year [at the Women4Africa Awards in London]. After that the president mentioned my name on International Women’s Day and that brought a lot of media attention to what I’ve been trying to do. Now I am known as Ifrah FGM and people know this is the subject I always talk about!
Women and Girls Hub: What was it like returning to Somalia after so many years living safely in Ireland?
Ifrah Ahmed: It was really difficult moving back. Security is a big issue. Al-Shabaab targets anyone who has a relationship with the international community so I have to watch my every movement. I check who I am visiting and where I am going and I never go on public transport or spend time in a public place.
Women and Girls Hub: You were a victim of FGM yourself. What do your family think about your campaign?
Ifrah Ahmed: When I first started working on this, a friend wrote an article about me and the title of the article was “FGM campaigner returns to Somalia to question her granny.” When I got there my granny said, “Don’t come near me, just ask me the question.” I was really embarrassed to ask her but after a few days I got the courage and said something. She said everyone did it at that time and no one knew any differently but she was glad I was doing something about it now. My hope was to film her talking about how she had changed her mind on FGM and show it to other grandmothers but unfortunately she passed away. It makes a big difference that she supported the work I am doing.
Women and Girls Hub: What stage is the legislation at now?
Ifrah Ahmed: The bill has been debated in the cabinet and is currently being discussed by religious leaders, but it has been delayed because some people want level one FGM (the least severe form of female circumcision) to be allowed. We want all forms of FGM to be banned so we are working on that now. Once it is agreed in cabinet it will be debated in parliament.
Women and Girls Hub: What happens when the bill is passed?
Ifrah Ahmed: For the government it’s all about celebrating passing legislation but this law will need to be followed up with a lot of grassroots work if it’s going to be effective. That’s why I have set up an organization in Somalia to work with communities on the issue. We will do a lot of educational work, talking to women and girls to inform them of their rights. I am also planning a big campaign called Dear Daughter. We will start with women living in the West who will pledge to their daughters they will not have to undergo FGM. I want them to say, “What happened to me, won’t happen to you.” We’re then hoping to take this campaign back to Somalia so they can see they can be part of a powerful movement to help eradicate the practice.
Women and Girls Hub: Are you working on any other campaigns related to women?
Ifrah Ahmed: Later this year Somalia will hold its first democratic elections in 25 years. The government has pledged women will comprise 30 percent of the next parliament so we are working with people in the community to make them aware of female candidates and encourage them to vote for women. We also want to tell women themselves they shouldn’t be discouraged from voting.
Women and Girls Hub: Are you confident FGM will be eradicated in Somalia in your lifetime?
Ifrah Ahmed: I believe it will be. It’s my mission to ensure that banning FGM becomes a mainstream issue. This year it was announced 200,000 girls are at risk from FGM, an increase from 160,000 last year. That’s ridiculous; the number is going up not down. We have to do everything we can to make this a global issue.