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Ifrah Ahmed is the Somali FGM Activist Fighting to End Rising FGM cases in Africa Post-COVID

Ifrah Ahmed (Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian)

It was when the phone started ringing with calls from worried mothers in Somalia that Ifrah Ahmed knew she was making an impact. The women told her their daughters had been bleeding for hours after undergoing female genital mutilation and asked what to do. Ahmed told them to seek medical attention, and probably saved lives by doing so.

The mothers called because they had heard the story of a 10-year-old girl who had bled to death after being cut in central Galmudug state in July 2018. It was the first confirmed death in years in a country where any complications arising from FGM are generally denied and it gained worldwide attention. The death was first revealed by a local activist who had been trained by Ahmed’s foundation in how to use the media to publicise her work.

Ahmed was herself cut as a child, and three years on from the girl’s death she, and many other activists, believe this grassroots approach is vital in helping to end a practice that causes immense emotional and physical harm, and often kills the victim.

“Grassroots campaigners play a big role in lobbying the government, speaking on behalf of children and raising awareness of the risks of FGM within the community,” says Ahmed, who advises the Somali prime minister on gender issues. “If it weren’t for the local activist we trained who was based in the area, we wouldn’t know the reality of the death of the girl … I don’t want any other girls to die from bleeding.”

Covid has placed millions more girls at risk of FGM as families have turned back to the practice during lockdowns. It has also resurfaced in countries, including Cameroon, where it had been largely abandoned. The procedure is performed for a number of reasons. In some communities it is a prerequisite for marriage; culture and religion are also used to justify it.

The UN has set a target date of 2030 to end the practice. Mireille Tushiminina, head of the UN programme dedicated to eliminating FGM, has a huge task ahead of her and recognises the role grassroots campaigners must play. “For us to address FGM, it requires us to have a holistic approach and have interventions at different levels – global, regional and national,” she says. “FGM is a social norm and any intervention needs to be context-specific.” She cites as an example the ability of activists to speak local languages.

Ahmed started the Ifrah Foundation, which aims to end FGM in the Horn of Africa, after she left Somalia to settle in Ireland. She has certainly seen the pandemic’s impact on FGM in Somalia, where an estimated 98% of females have undergone the practice – the highest level anywhere in the world.


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