“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
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