“I can still hear the sound of the cutting” | ActionAid UK

Zeinab Hassan

Women's rights, ActionAid Somaliland

I was mutilated when I was six years old. It was the most painful thing I can imagine and has caused me on-going problems ever since. I don’t have a daughter of my own to protect, but I don’t want anyone’s daughter to ever have to have FGM and suffer the way I have, and countless generations of women before me. This is my story.

Types of tools used in FGM practices in Africa
Types of tools used in FGM practices in Africa.

When my mother first tried to have me cut I was four years of age. My father refused and he said, “don’t touch her”. Two years went by before my father went to China for work. My mother had her opportunity. While my father was away, she took me to a lady, and I was circumcised.

I was young, but I remember. Always I remember. There were a lot of thorns put in me. I can still hear the sound of the cutting. 

There was a lot of blood. Everywhere. Continuously. It felt like all my blood had gone. I had a blood transfusion from my father, my uncle, and another uncle. For the last time, my mother called my father. My father was furious. He swore that if I died, he would never forgive her and would send her away from the house.

After seven days, when the thorns were taken out, I desperately needed to go to the toilet. I asked my mother to take me out of my bed to go outside so I could urinate. She helped me squat down but as she did, I felt there were still some thorns hidden inside me somewhere. It was agony.


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85% of girls in Somaliland have had the most extreme form of FGM

The problems didn’t end there. 85% of girls who have FGM in my country have the worst type – it’s called infibulation or type III. After a girl has had part of her genitals cut and removed, she is stitched up, so there is only a tiny gap for urine and blood, until her wedding night when she is cut open again, then stitched up and so on. This was what was done to me.

As you can imagine, I had terrible problems when delivering my babies. I had to have a caesarean. Three times. All because of the problems that FGM caused me. And even now long after having my children, I still have health difficulties.

Though I don’t have a daughter, if I did, I would never circumcise her. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is extremely harmful to girls, at the time, and as they grow into women. The immediate effects are blood loss that can cause shock and lead to death. And then there are the urine infections, problems when menstruation starts, problems giving birth, the list goes on. There are so many things. And of course psychologically it is very damaging too.

We want our coming generations to be free from FGM because we don’t want our girls to ever have to think back to what has happened to us.

As ActionAid women's rights coordiantor in Somaliland, I am able to do something about this.

ActionAid’s projects in Somaliland

ActionAid’s FGM programme is focussing on three areas: Hargeisa, Burao, and Erigavo. Our project is very different from the other projects going on in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, because previous projects have never included the youth and the men. But I think this is a big mistake. After all, it was my father who wanted to protect me from FGM. So our projects are including men and helping raise their voice.

Ridwaan is one of the boys who has attended our most recent training in Hargeisa. He says: “The information that I am getting from the training I am sharing with people at my home - my friends, colleagues and even my family.”

He continues: “Of course, I am worried that people might start talking about me and that it might cause problems, but I am still determined to spread the message that FGM is bad. I am doing as much as I can, because I am worried about my fellow sisters. If I don't do anything then they are likely to suffer from FGM. So I need to spread this message so that my sisters will be safe.”

Ridwaan Abdi, an ActionAid-trained FGM campaigner in Somaliland

We work also with all the other different sectors in the community, like traditional elders, women coalitions, and school youth clubs who are very effective at mobilising their communities:

  • The traditional elders and religious leaders are very important, as they are the gatekeepers of the community. So we discuss the issue with them, we train them and then send them out to talk to the villagers about the eradication of FGM.
  • We work very closely with women coalitions, who, despite holding little authority in the community, are trying their best to influence the traditional elders and the community to stop FGM.
  • And we go to the schools. We go to the Ministry of Education, and with their support, recruit teachers who can help us select the best students. We have specific criteria: willingness to work voluntarily, confidence at public speaking, and the ability to influence others so that they can go out and mobilise their peers in the school.

Challenging a deeply embedded practice

When I first started the project, it was not easy because FGM was still very taboo. People didn’t want to talk about it because they thought that it was forbidden. They said things like: “this is part of our religion, so please don't talk about it,” and “It's a good thing because we are looking after the honour of our girls, so please, leave us alone”.

It was hard, when we believe so much in rescuing girls from this terrible fate, to meet such resistance. But we knew we had to persist.

The fact that FGM is wrong is not a case of subjective opinion. It is a case of human rights.

Gradually we managed to build a relationship with people through discussing other issues that they were concerned about, like the drought and lack of water, and then once we had built up that trust, people began to accept us and were more willing to talk about FGM. Now, finally, we have reached the stage where FGM is a popular thing to talk about within society, and in public, even if you go to a birthday or wedding party or something.

Before boys and girls were afraid of being excluded by their peer groups. But now things are advancing. Now boys are speaking up to protect their sisters, mothers are talking to their daughters, and gradually you can find that in a household the elderly ones are cut while the younger ones are not.

And for instance, during the summer time, when women come back with their children from abroad to get their girls cut, the school youth clubs and the traditional elders go to the airport to meet them. They say that they will report them to London or wherever they have come from if they so much as try to cut the girls. So now more and more of these families are returning without FGM being done.

Since our project started in 2013, generously supported by the Adelman Foundation, we have already reached over 31,000 people in Somaliland through our work with schools, communities and religious leaders.

Abolishing FGM in Somaliland

Ending FGM in Somaliland will take time. But in the end, we want all our girls to be safe from the cut. That's what we are all working towards.

I hope that with our trainings, and also the international community working on FGM, that we might be able to stop FGM from being the norm in Somaliland within two decades. Maybe it will take another two decades to stop. We shall see. All I know is - it can’t come soon enough.

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