Female Genital Mutilation: The Beginning Of Change For Somali Women In The Most Tragic Of Circumstances

The tragic death of a young girl has marked a defining moment for the women of Somalia, as the nation’s attorney general announced the first prosecution for female genital mutilation (FGM) in the country’s history. Like 98% of Somali women and girls, ten-year-old Deeqa was taken to a traditional cutter for circumcision, but a vein was severed during the operation and she hemorrhaged to death two agonising days later. Deeqa’s death is the most high-profile case in Somalia in many years, as complications are often denied and fatalities rarely publicized. Anti-FGM campaigners are hoping that the actions of the government will send a powerful message around the country, by standing up to conservative groups who promote female circumcision, demystifying beliefs that the practice is safe, and potentially changing the future for thousands of girls.

At an event hosted by the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Gulaid issued a defining statement underlining that “it is not acceptable that in the 21st century FGM is continuing in Somalia”. The speech has been received with delight by campaigners; previous attempts to end FGM in the country have proved futile as the practice, though technically illegal, is upheld by conservative and religious groups who have quashed government attempts to punish offenders. FGM survivor and activist Ifrah Ahmed said that the actions “had taken everyone by surprise”, showing “just how quickly things can move when there is political will”. Activist O’Kane is also supportive, highlighting that “the fact that the attorney general has actually put his head way above the parapet and said he will prosecute is extraordinary”. However, she cautions that “it will be a long road for a country that hasn’t yet even banned FGM”.

Hopefully the Deputy Prime Ministers statement that “the prosecution of those involved in Deeqa’s [death] will send a strong message to the country” will indeed be a defining example of actions speaking louder than words. Whilst Somalia has no specific law against female genital mutilation, a prosecution for murder or manslaughter will show that the brutal act of mutilating young girls will no longer be tolerated. Further, as the government begins to take the interests of young girls seriously, these actions promise a real step both against FGM, but also for the future and rights of Somali women and girls.

Female genital mutilation is a common practice in African and Middle Eastern countries, but rates are highest in Somalia where 98% of women and girls are cut. The brutal practice is rooted in ideas about female purity and modesty, and is seen as a source of honour, where those who are not cut may experience social exclusion. Nearly two thirds of Somali girls undergo the most severe form of mutilation called infibulation, where the external genitalia are cut off or repositioned and the vaginal opening is sewn up, leaving only a small hole for menstrual blood to pass through. This most severe form is thought to be afflicted on 130 million women and girls worldwide, and is often performed by untrained midwives or healers using knives, razors, broken glass or even sharpened sticks. Whilst the risks for hemorrhage and infection are evident, campaigners say that “it is difficult to estimate the number of girls who die due to FGM per month or per day because they are [sworn] to secrecy, particularly in rural areas”. The inability to talk is partly why action has been difficult. In addition, whilst constitutionally illegal, there is no specific law against FGM, and pressure from conservative religious groups prevents lawmakers from passing legislation to punish offenders. Pro-FGM lobbyists often promote the view that female circumcision is not harmful, yet the procedure can cause severe psychological distress, medical complications, and in Deeqa’s case, an agonising unnecessary death.

The devastating and wholly unnecessary death of Deeqa has inspired the beginning of change; the prosecution of her cutter shows that this brutal act of violence against young women will no longer be tolerated, offering hope for thousands of Somalian girls and women. However, the act of female genital mutilation needs to be explicitly criminalised for the country to begin seeing real change. The prominence of Deeqa’s case is critical in changing people’s behaviours by raising awareness of the dangers of the procedure, which is an accepted norm for so many people. This is a promising start, but legal action and sustained education need to be maintained, otherwise the death of Deeqa and many other unknown girls will be for nothing, and the futures other young Somali women may fall to the same fate.