Surprises in Somaliland

28 December 2016

I boarded the flight armed only with a pen, paper and an idea that we can end FGM in a land where I had minimal knowledge. 

Reading Paul Schemm’s travel journalism, Surprises in Somaliland, in the Ethiopian Airlines Selamta in- flight magazine on my maiden trip to Somaliland my anxiety levels subsided.  In its wake came a sense of adventure and an eagerness to visit Somaliland’s capital, Hargesia.

To many of us living outside Hargesia, ostensibly fine distinctions between Somaliland and Somalia are compounded by an ignorance that they are one amorphous land characterised by violence, instilling trepidation among those considering visiting the area. 

But in Hargesia, the peace is tangible and thriving ever since Somaliland declared its independence from Somalia 25 years ago.  Indeed, the local people are keen to remind you they are Somalilanders, not Somalians, at any moment one displays a moment of confusion or doubt!

It is within this environment of independent thinking that The Girl Generation brought its idea of ending FGM.

This  idea is enshrined in our wider vision of healthy and empowered girls and women, accessing their fundamental human rights and the opportunity to realise their full potential.  The Girl Generation believes that ending FGM is a critical lever in achieving this vision. 

It is also a vision we are spreading across the ten African countries we work in to end FGM.  To my pleasant surprise, it is a vision shared by many in Somaliland, too, ranging from policy makers, some religious leaders, civil society members, the youth and communities.  

There is also, however, opposition as part of an ongoing public debate across many constituents and scholars arguing for the abandonment of the most severe forms of FGM (i.e., Type III, infibulation) in favour of less severe forms (i.e., Type I, Sunna).

The definition of ‘Sunna’ is, however, unclear. 

It ranges from tiny needle pricks, to nicks and cuts of a girl’s genitalia as a way of abiding with the perceived religious obligation of FGM, but avoiding the adverse short-term health consequences.

Others are advocating for alternative rites of passage that do not entail female genitalia. And yet others calling for zero tolerance of FGM, i.e., its complete abandonment and calling against the misleading narrative that advocate for harm reduction. Currently, this debate has no winners. 

The Girl Generation's position is that all forms of FGM are harmful and represent violence against women and girls. 

The prevalence of FGM, predominantly Type III, remains near-universal at 97 percent, and those advocating for zero tolerance fear the Sunna approach will only legitimise the practice and undo the many gains achieved since the campaign started 45 years ago.

The Girl Generation spent five days meeting anti-FGM stakeholders and partners. We listen to their discussions, but we remain driven by the deep conviction that FGM violates the dignity and rights of women and girls and therefore must end.  

We were encouraged by those standing up for the practice’s complete abandonment.

Indeed, one of the highlights of our mission was a day spent with stakeholders working together to develop an advocacy strategy to lobby for a government policy to end FGM and a law to ban it.

We shared our vision of the development of an Africa-led global movement to end FGM and the need for everyone to work closely together as the only way we can achieve our shared goal.

 The excitement to be part of this global movement was palpable, with many expressing their delight that ending FGM is an agenda that extends beyond Somaliland’s borders.

Amal Ahmed, Executive Director, Somaliland Family Health Association, and our delightful host in Somaliland was the first to speak out when we had presented our ideas:

“After meeting The Girl Generation, my head is buzzing with ideas and things we can do differently to strengthen our resolve.  I am now encouraged that we can indeed end FGM in Somaliland.”

This sentiment was shared by Ms.  Luul Adan Geddi, Director Social Affairs, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs.  

Abdirahman O. Gaas, Executive Director at the Network Against FGM/C in Somaliland welcomed the opportunity to partner with The Girl Generation to catalyse social change in Somaliland. 

“I believe we can do this,” he said, enthusiastically.

At a stakeholder convening session on our last day, 21 organisations and networks were represented, with all making a commitment to develop a national movement to end FGM  in Somaliland. Also agreed was the development of  a youth network, giving young people a space within which to speak out given they are critical drivers in ending FGM in their generation.

We left Somaliland energised, with a renewed degree of commitment and a consensus that we must strive for a commitment for FGM’s total abandonment, and convinced we can quell the ongoing debate with an agreement that the practice is not desirable, needed nor necessary.

Reflecting on our visit on the return flight to Nairobi, it had been clear that Schemm’s observations were very perceptive. 

There are indeed multiple surprises in Somaliland and one additional surprise on the horizon: working together, will end FGM in one generation.

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