The minute a girl is born into a society that accepts female genital mutilation (FGM), her life is mapped. Her right to marry, her right to education, her right to explore, is decided for her. Why? Because she is an asset, a commodity. And like any other asset or commodity, she can be profitable, or she can be disposable. FGM, also called “cutting”, happens when she is treated as both.
When I was six years old and living with my family in Somalia, I became a victim of FGM. From that moment on, my entire life changed. My world collapsed that day. I was a child; I had been butchered.
FGM is trauma that doesn’t stay in childhood. It becomes part of a girl’s entire life story. When a girl is mutilated like this, her life is set on a path she has no say in. I didn’t.
Because of population growth in the 29 countries where the practice is particularly prevalent, UNICEF predicts that the number of girls being cut will rise from 3.6 million a year in 2013 to 6.6 million by the year 2050, if nothing is done to stop it.
Those girls will never forget what has happened to them – just as I never have. It is a gruesome horror that I carry with me. I am 50 years old now, but the anger is always fresh, always raw.
I remember that day when, as a six-year-old girl, I became a prisoner of my own body. I remember that everyone around me, everyone I trusted, knew exactly what was going to happen to me and did nothing anything to stop it.
I knew the reason it was happening to me was so that I could be “preserved” for someone else – my future husband. My life didn’t matter – it was all about him. I felt trapped. There was no point in living, no point in being born, if I was just going to be a producer of someone else’s children.
Since that day, I have carried tremendous physical, emotional and psychological pain. But I normalised it, because everyone else around me normalised it, too.
But not any more. Although it took me many years to get to this point, I have dedicated the past 11 years to campaigning against FGM.
There is much greater awareness about this issue now.
My family fled the civil war in Somalia for the UK, where FGM is banned. Here, the government is listening to activists like me more closely. We have had consultations, and I believe the UK government now views FGM as a form of sexual abuse of children and as a child protection issue, rather than as a cultural practice it should not get involved in.
This support has given me the courage to go on and talk much more openly about FGM, particularly in schools. The biggest part of my work now involves educating young people and students. This is what I was born to do – it is what gives me tremendous hope and meaning. I do believe it is the young who will finally eradicate this practice.
But it is not just Western societies like the UK that are listening and where attitudes are changing. In Senegal, for example, the practice of FGM is still happening, but the government and leaders in society are taking action to put an end to it.
Senegal has used human rights laws to teach people. The constitution explicitly prohibits the practice of FGM and, as a result, the latest report from the non-government organisation, 28toomany, shows that approximately 80 percent of the population – crucially, both men and women – believe it should stop. There is a much greater understanding now about the medical dangers of FGM, including the risk of dying in childbirth.
But what has really worked in Senegal is men coming on board and saying: “I don’t want women to be cut.”
I believe men have a major role to play. In most societies, men tend to stay silent about things that are happening to women, even when they know it is happening, because it has to do with female body parts.
But it is not just a women’s issue – it is a human rights issue. And human rights issues are men’s issues, too. If you become a father and you know your daughter is going to be cut, you have to stand up for her.
So, I am asking the men in all our communities to have the courage to stop this violence against women and children. It has gone on long enough, and it has always been done for the benefit of men. It is time for men to own up to their part in it.
In my activism, I have seen so much change. Women I know have changed their minds about getting their daughters cut. Conversations have opened up between mothers and families.
Can you imagine what society could be like if women all over the world could write their own destinies?
Give girls an education and see what they can achieve with their lives. Don’t slice their flesh and expose them to lifelong trauma. Don’t normalise their deaths. Treasure them.
I have so much hope for the future. I have no doubt female genital mutilation will be eradicated within the next century. I believe that wholeheartedly. And I hope to be alive to see it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.