When I met Somaliland’s President Musa in late 2017 he promised me that he would ban female genital mutilation (FGM) within his first 100 days in office. As one of the 98% of Somali women affected by this horrific form of violence at the age of 7, I was overcome with emotion at the thought that the place of my birth was finally showing some leadership for the rights of women and girls. At the time, President Musa even wrote in a London newspaper that he would “bring focus and clarity to this campaign led by Somaliland’s hundreds of activists and campaigners”.
Three years later, I have some very different emotions. Although local activists such as Edna Aden are having success in reducing FGM, Somaliland’s government has ended up doing little to nothing to help. Not only has it failed to make progress on this urgent issue, which holds all women and girls back – and which destroys our potential for prosperity – but we have moved backwards on women’s rights more broadly too. One disturbing example of this is last year’s cancellation by the Ministry of Youth and Sports of the first women’s football tournament to be held in Somaliland for being supposedly ‘unislamic’. This is far from the progress I had hoped for. Without strong leadership from government it is literally going to take decades before our girls can be properly protected from FGM, forced marriage and sexual violence.
The emergence of COVID-19 during 2020 has made things harder still for Somali girls, who have found themselves out of school and at much higher risk of experiencing violence. On a global level, the United Nations has predicted that at least an additional 2 million girls may now be at risk of FGM.
Against this devastating backdrop, FGM has been de-prioritised (again) by many in Somaliland and in the East African region in general. Thankfully, I have not heard of any public ceremonies taking place such as in Kenya where nearly 3,000 girls were marched down the street after undergoing FGM in the Kuria province. However, it’s likely that all forms of violence against girls – not only FGM, but also forced marriage and sexual violence – have increased in Somaliland as families find themselves in even more dire economic situations that they had imagined one year ago.
Over the last few months, The Five Foundation, The Global Partnership To End FGM, the organisation I co-founded in 2019, has been granting funding directly to frontline women’s rights activists in specific locations in Somaliland, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Tanzania where FGM is highly prevalent, to help make sure that girls at risk are given some form of additional protection at this critical time – but the need is much greater than we are able to address. Even during the global pandemic, large donors continue to resist funding women on the frontlines – even though it is obvious that they are the only ones who remain resolved to breaking the cycle of abuse, while many international aid workers have returned home.
February 6 is International Day of Zero Tolerance For FGM, an important day to reflect on what needs to happen next to ensure the 30-32 million girls at risk between now and 2030 can be better protected. I remain hopeful that this year’s theme of acting to fund efforts to end it will resonate with donors and corporations alike who are interested in being part of Africa’s female future.
Financing activism on the ground, while simultaneously supporting women’s economic empowerment is the dual prong approach that will help us finally get to grips with ending violence against African women and girls. We cannot continue to do the same things and expect different results. We need to urgently start funding those on the frontlines who are doing all of the heavy lifting. And we need governments to show leadership and commitment to protecting us and promoting our rights.
So, while I am hopeful that this year will finally see Somaliland get its act together and ban FGM, my even bigger ambition is for African women to be fully empowered to take their rightful place as part of the continent’s dream of ending violence, building peace and fueling economic prosperity.