FGM: Was it a blessing when they cut me?

Hamda Mahdi Mohamed reciting her poem

Was it a blessing when they cut me?
Was it a blessing when they held me down?
Lit frankincense to cover the smell of the blood?
Was it a blessing when I struggled to go to the toilet?
Was it a blessing when I couldn’t walk?
Have I missed the blessing of being mutilated?
Where was the shame of an 8-year-old girl?

Extract from a poem by Hamda Mahdi Mohamed, age 17

Across Somalia/Somaliland, you can ask any women about her experience with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and tears will well up in her eyes. She will get a lump in her throat as she recounts details about the day she was cut.

She will give details on who was there, the size of the room, the smell of frankincense wafting through the air. On being held down screaming and crying, only to be told girls should not cry and this was a good thing happening to her. To be brave or she will be ridiculed.

Each woman, whatever her age, can give a detailed account like it was yesterday.

In Somalia/Somaliland, CARE is helping to run a project funded by UK aid that aims to challenge harmful social norms including FGM and child marriage, and to increase women’s social and economic empowerment. Recently, the CHANGES project organised a poetry evening to raise awareness about FGM and women’s rights.

To a UK reader, poetry may not sound like the most hard-hitting medium to achieve social change. But in Somalia, poetry and activism go hand in hand. Somali people are renowned poets, and in times of struggle poems are used to convey social and political messages. Poetry is used both to resolve disputes and to strengthen social ties. Men use poetry to court women and even to propose marriage; women draft poems to reject or return the interest.

Bride and child should never be used in the same sentence

Clean and mutilation should never be used in the same sentence

Abuse and freedom from justice should never be used in the same sentence

During the poetry evening, five female poets each delivered a poem describing women’s experiences of suffering from FGM, rape and domestic violence, as well as the capacity of women to play an integral role in society.

As I listened to the poems, I remembered a friend of mine who hated knives.

When I asked her one day, ‘Why do you hate knives so much?’, she stopped for a minute and got a faraway look in her eyes – a look so familiar to many Somali women – and said:

When they cut me they used a knife. We lived in a village and they had no razor blades.

That was enough for me to understand what she meant. The power FGM has on Somali women goes beyond the event of the cutting. It is a lifelong horrific experience that lives with the woman, during her menstrual cycle, during her marriage and during labour. When a woman has a daughter who has reached the age of cutting, she is torn between conforming to societal pressure, or the pain she knows her daughter will go through, for the rest of her life.

Having women poets expressing their support for the eradication of FGM, and speaking about their own experiences through poems, creates deeply powerful messages for the campaign. It is a step in the right direction to break the social stigma attached to openly condemning this horrific and harmful practice.

By Hodan Elmi, Governance, Advocacy, Communications and Peacebuilding Advisor for CARE Somalia/Somaliland

About the CHANGES project

Somalia has one of the highest rates of gender inequality according to the Gender Inequality Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This means women are more likely to face exclusion in key areas such as health, empowerment and work. In Somalia, according to available national statistics, 98% of women have undergone FGM. FGM is mostly performed on girls aged four to 11 years at the request of parents and guardians who neither seek nor respect the girls’ views.

Somalia has very high rates of community support for the continuation of the practice. Social norms on gender relationships and differences in social values for boys and girls are a major underlying cause. The CHANGES project (Challenging Harmful Attitudes and Norms for Gender Equality and Empowerment in Somalia/Somaliland) is being implemented by a consortium of CARE International, Save the Children and the IRC (International Rescue Committee) and is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Norwegian Embassy.

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