“I w a S S I X y e a r S o l d — a n d I r e m e m b e r e v e r y t h I n g ”

All the girls in my school were cut and when i men­tioned that i was not, i be­came the tar­get of bul­ly­ing

WKND - - Social Issues Taking A Stand -

In 2012, Hibo Wardere was work­ing as a teach­ing as­sis­tant in her daugh­ter’s pri­mary school in the UK. So when she was as­signed to men­tor a 10- year- old girl who, like her­self, hailed from So­ma­lia, she didn’t think twice. As she grad­u­ally bonded with the girl, one day, she was let in on a lit­tle se­cret. The girl’s older sis­ter had ‘ be­come a woman’ dur­ing a re­cent trip to So­ma­lia. The fol­low­ing year would be her turn.

“The minute I heard that, all I could think was ‘ No!’,” ex­plained Hiba dur­ing a pow­er­ful talk at the re­cent Boldtalks event in Dubai. Back then, Hiba knew that the girl’s sis­ter had un­der­gone fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion ( FGM), a process that in­volves the cut­ting of the fe­male or­gan, some­times with lit­tle or no med­i­cal aid. She knew this be­cause she was a sur­vivor of the process her­self.

“When the head­mas­ter asked me if I thought any­thing was wrong, I wish I had the courage to speak up,” re­mem­bers Hibo. “But I did not. I kept quiet and the fol­low­ing year, the girl left for her sum­mer hol­i­day. She never re­turned.”

FGM is a prac­tice that is most com­monly found in parts of west, east and north Africa, although it is preva­lent in many other parts of the world, not to men­tion within lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties that mi­grate to other coun­tries. The con­se­quences of the pro­ce­dure are dire — re­cur­rent in­fec­tions, in­fer­til­ity and com­pli­ca­tions dur­ing child­birth are only some of the af­ter- ef­fects. To this day, no health ben­e­fits have been found in favour of it. And yet, so­ci­eties not only con­done the prac­tice but also en­cour­age it — some com­mu­ni­ties be­lieve it will make girls taller and more beau­ti­ful, while oth­ers think it is nec­es­sary to up­hold a fam­ily’s hon­our.

“It is of­ten done to ‘ pre­serve’ women un­til they are mar­ried off to the man that is cho­sen for them,” ex­plains Hibo. “The fact of the mat­ter is that, from the day you are born, you are con­trolled. You are not seen as an in­di­vid­ual per­son who can go on to achieve in­cred­i­ble things. You are some­one who needs to be re­stricted.”

Although most coun­tries where it is preva­lent have banned it, the prac­tice is dif­fi­cult to erad­i­cate. Egypt, which made the pro­ce­dure il­le­gal in 2008, is be­lieved to have a 91 per cent FGM preva­lence rate amongst women, ac­cord­ing to a UNICEF es­ti­mate in the same year. That per­cent­age goes up to 98 in So­ma­lia. The rea­son it is so wide­spread is be­cause it is of­ten rooted in cul­tural mis­con­cep­tions.

Hibo be­lieves that the root cause be­hind it is so­cial pres­sure. “As a child, you don’t know what it is, but you know it is some­thing you should be proud about,” she tells me in a pri­vate in­ter­view be­fore the event. “All the girls in my school were cut and, when I men­tioned that I was not, I be­came the tar­get of bul­ly­ing. I was the ridicule of the play­ground. In the end, I asked my mother to be cut be­cause I could not han­dle it and she in­formed me that she was go­ing to do it any­way; she was just wait­ing un­til I was older.”

Hibo says the event was dou­bly worse be­cause, the day be­fore the pro­ce­dure, she was thrown a party with friends and fam­i­lies at­tend­ing. She was con­grat­u­lated, brought gifts and told she was about to ‘ be­come a woman’. Af­ter that warm and lov­ing at­mos­phere, un­der­go­ing the bru­tal pro­ce­dure with­out med­i­cal as­sis­tance of any kind left her in shock. “I was six years old,” she tells me. “I was six years old, and I re­mem­ber ev­ery­thing.”

Hibo left So­ma­lia for the UK at the age of 18 with her mother and sib­lings and never looked back. To her, the UK sym­bol­ised hope — a chance to start afresh. It was there that she met her hus­band, an­other refugee from So­ma­lia, be­came a mother to seven chil­dren, and learned how to speak English. But she was still run­ning away from the prob­lem, she ex­plains, and it took meet­ing the 10- year- old girl to make her start speak­ing up.

She be­gan talk­ing about it, first as part of the school’s awareness pro­gramme and, later, through work­shops given to stu­dents and pro­fes­sion­als. To­day, she is a pow­er­ful anti- FGM cam­paigner in the UK, giv­ing talks to po­lice of­fi­cers, so­cial work­ers and doc­tors. More­over, her mem­oir Cut: One Woman’s fight Against FGM in Bri­tain To­day was ex­tremely well­re­ceived, and opened the door for fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion on what was once a hushed- up topic.

“Writ­ing the book was dif­fi­cult,” she ad­mits. “Emo­tion­ally, it was drain­ing; men­tally, it was just ex­haust­ing. But in the end… it was al­most a re­lief. It was my way of try­ing to make peo­ple un­der­stand. The book has sto­ries from other TELLING HER STORY: Giv­ing a mov­ing and emo­tional speech dur­ing the re­cent Boldtalks 2016 event in Dubai; ( fac­ing page) Hibo poses with her book Cut: One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Bri­tain To­day

ERAD­I­CA­TION THROUGH EDUCATION: ( above) Hibo now spends time de­liv­er­ing lec­tures to male and fe­male stu­dents in schools in the UK; ( be­low) pos­ing with her mem­oir shortly af­ter its launch

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