On 20 December 2019 at the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, a couple was convicted of one count of the female genital mutilation (FGM) of their one-year-old daughter at an address in Dublin in September 2016, as well as one count of child cruelty relating to the same incident. During the hearing carried out in November, the court heard that the woman, from Somalia, had also been victim to the same practice as a child. Ms. Justice Elma Sheahan has postponed sentencing until 27 January 2020 to allow consideration of evidence in the case.
FGM generally takes three forms, it involves the excision of the clitoris (Type 1), excision of the clitoris and labia (Type 2) or stitching (infibulation) of the labia and removal of the clitoris (Type 3 also known as “Pharaonic Circumcision”). The health issues caused particularly by Type 3 FGM are profound: frequently carried out by “traditional” practitioners in unhygienic surroundings, it can, according to UNICEF, lead to the “entire gamut of medical complications, including: tetanus infection leading to death; severe bleeding during the procedure and later during deinfibulation; complications during childbirth; inability to urinate; septicemia, sometimes leading to death; severe muscle contractions; and difficulties in breathing”. This is to say nothing of the profoundly damaging mental health implications of mutilating and inflicting agonising pain on girls. Furthermore, within communities with precarious access to healthcare and strained or non-existent public health systems, FGM compounds problems for healthcare professionals struggling to cope with already heavy workloads. It is, therefore, a profound public health problem, as well as a women’s rights issue.
The prevalence of FGM within Somalia is staggering with an estimated 90-98 per cent of girls between the ages of 4 and 11 victim to some form of the practice with nearly 80 per cent undergoing Type 3. It is broadly representative, then, of the relegation of women within Somali culture to second class citizens where a patrilineal clan system (Qabil) rooted in pastoralist culture orders society. For instance, under Somali customary law (Xeer), the life of a woman is worth half that of a man in terms of blood compensation (Diya). Similarly, a woman’s opinion is worth half that of a man’s in a traditional assembly (Shir) or mediation. These attitudes are borne out in the horrific violence women are subjected to by security forces and civilians alike, with rape and beating of women proliferating and even punitive stonings, sometimes for being raped, not uncommon. Furthermore, Somalia has an overwhelming majority Sufi Muslim population. It is, for the most part, a place where “the veil is lightly worn” and a pragmatic interpretation of Islam sits sometimes uneasily alongside customary laws and practices. Moreover, while FGM is frequently justified as a religious practice preserving the purity of women, it is, in reality, an extremely resilient customary practice which predates the conception and arrival to the Horn of Africa of Islam. While it is most prevalent within Somalia, FGM is also extant to varying degrees in the rest of the Horn of Africa, for instance, majority Christian Ethiopia. As such, despite the fractious relationship of the various populations within the region framed around religious conflict, it exposes deep cultural linkages between the Cushitic peoples inhabiting the Horn.
While FGM, then, is practised mainly in majority Muslim countries and is frequently framed as a Muslim issue, it is also extant in Christian and Jewish (specifically in Ethiopia) populations as well as Central and Western Africa, parts of the Middle East and South-East Asia. While some references to male circumcision within Islamic texts are regularly and incorrectly employed as justifications for the practice, significantly, it is neither required nor prohibited by the Quran or the Bible, rather, it is tellingly not mentioned in either text. Attempts to square this theological circle are indicative of the resilience of the practice and, consequently, demonstrative of why contemporary efforts to advocate against the practice are slow to drive change.
Within Somalia, advocacy groups struggle against the weight of custom, tradition and superstition. Nonetheless, some degree progress has been made especially within urban areas with some turning away from Type 3 FGM and resorting to less harmful, albeit still extremely problematic, versions of FGM. Fewer still have outright stopped the practice. Furthermore, there has been a moral realignment amongst politicians who recently have begun to advocate against the practice. However, unsurprisingly, there is some reluctance to discuss female reproductive issues in the male-dominated, overwhelmingly Muslim country’s legislatures. Despite this, the semi-autonomous Somali region of Puntland’s parliament passed an anti-FGM bill in 2011 and the practice is specifically prohibited by the 2012 Somali constitution. However, startlingly, the practice has not actually been criminalised despite the best efforts of activists especially in the wake of the death in 2018 of a ten-year-old girl in rural Somalia, named Deeqa, who bled to death after being taken to a “traditional cutter” by her mother. Of course, Somalia, which is a fragile state riddled by insecurity, intra-state conflict and concurrent complex humanitarian emergencies has limited capacity to project power even within urban areas. As a result, any movement to enshrine laws against the practice are, realistically, nominal.
In the Irish context, Ifrah Ahmed, a Somali-born Irish citizen, who founded the Ifrah Foundation, has become a powerful voice globally in the anti-FGM movement and has done invaluable work spreading awareness and advocating against the practice. She has even returned to Somalia to campaign against FGM, a journey not without its dangers given endemic insecurity and prevailing attitudes towards women. Ifrah Ahmed and other anti-FGM campaigners, then, face a wicked problem; the causes of FGM are multifarious and the practice is deeply ingrained in Somalia, however, progress is being made albeit slowly. Moreover, if Somalia’s institutions and security situation continue to stabilise and improve, as has been the case over the last ten years, and the country wishes to improve its image for donors and stakeholders by presenting a modernising face to the world, progress can be made.
If you have been touched by this article or would like to find out more, you can contact the Ifrah Foundation.
Photo of Ifrah Ahmed by AMISOM Public Information
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