We talk to the Irish woman who survived female genital mutilation as a child as she becomes the Somali prime minister’s adviser on gender issues.
At 17 years old, Ifrah Ahmed left Somalia because of the war. With the help of medical professionals in Ireland, her new home, she came to terms with the horror of Female Genital Mutilation she underwent at eight years old. Her determination to highlight the truths about the barbaric practice have brought her full circle, back to Somalia, as an adviser to the government there. She visited the Guardian offices in London to tell us more about her new job.
I first went back to Somalia in March 2013 after years as a FGM campaigner in Europe, mainly to visit my grandmother. I also visited camps for internally displaced people, where I met so many beautiful young girls. One morning, a girl told me that she and two other girls were to be cut the following Friday.
“A girl told me that she and two other girls were to be cut the following Friday”
They showed me the hut where they were going to stay and it was shocking. My heart broke for them and so I called a friend and asked what should I do. He said to me: “Follow your heart and do what you think is right.” I was lucky enough to save these girls by giving the family money in return for which they swore on the Qur’an that FGM would not be in their future.
But I couldn’t stay in the camp as I was scared that a lot of people would appear with girls saying they too were at risk of FGM, and I knew I just couldn’t help them all.
Working with the Somalian government
On a trip to the EU parliament for a conference, I met with the former Somalian minister of women and human rights, who told me that my voice was needed in Somalia. She asked me to come back and work at the Ministry for Women where I would be part of the development of child rights programmes, including the ratification of the convention on the rights of the child in Somalia, particularly FGM.
I was lucky to have the support of the minister of women Khadijah Mohamed Dirrie. With her backing, I started engaging directly with communities to promote the prevention of FGM as well as with religious leaders.
‘All mothers want the best for their daughter’s future’
The communities are difficult to deal with because mothers still believe that FGM is a generational tradition and some are convinced that girls go through a religious experience with it. After many months of researching and working with the Ifrah Foundation, we developed a very simple, basic belief that all mothers want the best for their daughter’s future. We came up with the Dear Daughter campaign. A letter of commitment and promise, a pledge almost, that each and every mother can write to her daughter to promise her a future free of FGM.
Somalia: Life after 30 years of war
My country of birth is often quoted statistically as the country with the highest incidence of FGM. How could I tackle the task of eradicating FGM across a country slowly emerging from the ravages of a 30-year war? Understandably, the government is dealing with all sorts of immediate emergencies, the religious leaders are engaging with hardline reactionary issues. The day-to-day life of Somalis, so many of whom have been displaced because of the war, is very hard.
To focus their attention on FGM as a human rights issue has taken years. To tackle awareness, I set up conventions and symposiums intended to provide education, with the support of Amison and the University of Mogadishu. I solicited the backing of key government ministers, who are now so supportive that they have appointed me gender coordinator on behalf of the government. The prime minister himself has spoken out publicly of his support for FGM legislation and even signed the AVAAZ petition, (1 million signatures), at a meeting in Rome last month. He has undertaken to pass the legislation before the end of the next parliamentary session. As a result, a number of aid groups with infrastructure on the ground in Somalia have undertaken to partner with the Ifrah Foundation and the Somalian government to implement a national FGM abandonment programme, focused on education and empowerment.
It’s only the beginning, but I am optimistic that the future for girls in Somalia will be very different to my own.