In Somaliland, COVID goes door-to-door for girls | Health and fitness

By CARA ANNA – Associated Press

HARGEISA, Somalia (AP) — Safia Ibrahim’s business was struggling. COVID-19 had taken hold in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa. The 50-year-old widow with 10 dependent children went door-to-door in the suburbs of the capital, a razor in her hand, taking advantage of the confinement to look for work with a question: have your daughters been circumcised?

Her profession is excision, learned at the age of 15, practiced hundreds of times and now passed on to her daughters. She congratulates the young girls at the end of the intervention: “Pray for me, I have made you a woman now.

She thinks her job keeps girls clean for marriage, even though she now knows there is no medical or even religious reason for the removal of external genitalia, which can cause excessive bleeding, problems childbirth, infections and even death. But it remains legal in Somaliland, so Ibrahim will continue until authorities tell him to stop.

Her story resonates in Muslim and other communities across a wide swath across Africa south of the Sahara. In many places, COVID-19 has strained the efforts of health workers and activists to end what they call female genital mutilation.

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This story is part of a one year streak on the impact of the pandemic on women in Africa, especially in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants programme, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for all content.

Experts say cases of FGM have risen alarmingly during the pandemic in Somaliland and other parts of Africa, as lockdowns have kept girls out of school, leaving them vulnerable to ‘cutters’ like Ibrahim, and economic pressures have led poor parents to marry off their daughters, for whom FGM often remains a cultural expectation.

At the start of the pandemic, the United Nations Population Fund warned that disruptions to prevention programs could lead to 2 million cases of FGM over the next decade that might otherwise have been prevented.

In Somaliland, an arid region that broke away from Somalia three decades ago and is seeking recognition as an independent country, community assessments by officials and aid groups have revealed that FGM has increased during the six months of pandemic confinement. Advocacy groups say they have also seen increases in Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan and Somalia.

Sadia Allin, Somali director of the non-governmental organization Plan International, said she was alarmed when an FGM practitioner came to ask about her daughters in Somaliland’s capital, Hargeisa.

“She said, ‘I want to cut them,’ and it was the shock of my life,” Allin said. “I didn’t expect something like this to happen at this time and time, because of the awareness and the work we’ve done.”

She said their survey found that 61% of people in Hargeisa and Somaliland’s second largest city, Burao, believed FGM was increasing under the lockdown.

FGM is often still practiced at home. Ibrahim demonstrated the procedure in his backyard. Using the palm of a translator’s hand to stand like a girl’s genital area, she held a syringe just above the skin and pretended to inject an anesthetic – a relatively new addition to his routine.

With a razor blade, she swept over where the girl’s clitoris would be. Other cuts and the lips were gone. Finally, with needles and thread, she pretended to sew up the girl’s opening, leaving a small hole for the urine and menstrual blood that would begin in years to come.

Somaliland, which has a population of more than 3 million, already had the highest rate of FGM in the world before the pandemic, according to the UN children’s agency, with 98% of girls undergoing it between 5 and 11 years old. The majority suffer the most severe form, being sewn up until marriage.

In Somaliland, COVID-19 hit as activists and officials said they were gaining momentum for an anti-FGM policy, a cabinet-backed government position. They call it a crucial step towards a law banning FGM.

Somaliland President Muse Bihi Abdi has said he wants to make the practice illegal. But the religious authorities pushed back.

Tensions were clear on February 6, when government and civil society leaders came together to mark the UN-sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM.

Former First Lady Edna Adan Ismail – the first person in Somaliland to speak out publicly against FGM nearly five decades ago – has spoken out in favor of a total ban on the practice. The government’s religious affairs minister, Abdirizak Hussein Ali Albani, would not go that far. He acknowledged that the more severe type of FGM can damage a girl’s reproductive organs, but said the less severe type that cuts into the clitoris should remain optional.

Increasingly, women and some men of Somaliland’s younger, more educated generation are challenging these religious and cultural beliefs. Some are health workers who have seen the complications of FGM – girls who bleed to death and women who struggle to bear children.

A nurse, Hana Ismail, 23, was moved to write a poem about it. At the Zero Tolerance event, she recited it: “I have a mark that can never be erased,” she began, later describing how a knife had to be used to make way for the ‘childbirth.

Somaliland’s existence as an unrecognized state has complicated its response to the pandemic. But now that the vaccines have started to arrive, the Minister of Social Affairs hopes that an anti-FGM law will see the light of day soon. There is another challenge, however, unique in Africa: every legislator in Somaliland is a man.

Former first lady Ismail was candid about the remaining fight.

“At the end of the day, there’s an imam who says, ‘Oh, that’s wrong.’ These few words annihilate all efforts.

But she is no longer alone as a reformer. Other women are now wondering about the roles that society expects of them.

At the only sports center strictly for women in Somaliland, founder Amoun Aden Ismail speaks out against FGM. At first, the members there laughed. “But I told them it was part of life. You have to love your body, protect it.

Member Muhubo Ibrahim recalls, “The day my mum did it to me, I said, ‘I won’t forgive you, forever.’

Later, her mother said, “I now believe I made a mistake.” She has since encouraged Ibrahim to do whatever she wants with her own daughters when the time comes.

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