Ifrah Ahmed will go home to Somalia next month for the first time since she left there as a refugee seven years ago.Then 17, she has achieved a huge amount in the relatively short time she has been in Ireland.
Without a word of English when she arrived, she now speaks fluently and knowledgeably about the issue which he has done so much to highlight in her adopted country – female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM was something not many ordinary Irish people or even medical personnel would have heard of a decade ago, but it is now banned under legislation passed in 2012, thanks in no small part to her relentless campaigning on the issue. “I visited Joe Costelloon Saturdays and he would say, ‘oh, you again’,” she says with a smile.
It is estimated that some 3,170 women in Ireland have been victims of FGM. The process may be banned here, but it is still possible for girls to be subjected to the procedure in their own countries.
Ifrah also interviewed the Somalian president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, while in Brussels campaigning as part of the End FGM European campaign.
She secured a promise from him that the issue of FGM would be dealt with in Somalia, but in a state where the rule of law was barely functioning that promise had limited value.
“We’re doing our level best. We are only getting finger-pointing and criticism from the outside world,” the president told her. “With the meagre resources we have, we are doing our best.”
FGM is a barbaric process which still exists almost exclusively in Africa.
In December 2012 the United Nations (UN) passed five resolutions condemning it. The motions were supported by all the countries in the African Union.
The procedure ranges in severity from a clitoridectomy, or the partial or total removal of the clitoris; excision, or the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; infibulations, or the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal with or without a clitoridectomy.
The procedure can lead to multiple problems later in life. Infections, urinary incontinence, infertility, pain during sex and childbirth are among the problems faced by women who have been subjected to FGM.
The UN estimates that 140 million women have suffered FGM, two million girls a year are still subjected to the process. In parts of the Horn of Africa, FGM rates are more than 90 per cent.
One of them is Ms Ahmed who comes from a country where 98 per cent of the female population have suffered FGM. She was circumcised twice, when she was eight and when she was 12.
“It was very difficult to communicate with doctors or nurses. Sometimes nobody can understand the pain you feel inside of you,” she explains.
“People did not understand what FGM victims want. I used to get infections or get sick when I had my period and I went to doctors and I wanted to tell the doctor, but I could never speak. I’m so lucky that I can help a lot of women to go to the doctor.”
She addressed the subject at an African night in Duleek recently and realised there is still resistance to an end to the procedure. “People rang me and said, ‘you can bullshit with your white people, but not us’ and that came from a number of people.”
She is returning to Somalia to raise awareness of FGM in a country where the al-Qaida-linked militant group al-Shabaab still holds sway and where women themselves acquiesce in a process that is misogynistic as it is rooted in a desire to curb female sexuality and make sex a painful experience.
“I will ask my grandmother, ‘why did you do it? Why was I circumcised?’ When I was in Somalia, one of the women I know died because of the bleeding.
“She’s very old and I love her very much, but I need to know from her that she’s sorry and she didn’t know. How could somebody take a broken glass and remove everything from a woman?”
Plan Ireland has been involved in several campaigns to stop FGM in the developing world as part of their “Because I’m A Girl’ campaign. They have managed to persuade nine communities in Africa to give up the practice, a small but significant gain.
Chief executive David Dalton said FGM is entrenched through thousands of years of tradition in many societies, but progress is being made.
“It is regarded as a shame on a family if a girl entered into a marriage and she did not have FGM. There is an honour side of it and a puritan side of it, ie a girl will stay a virgin longer by making sex painful.”
He said there is a myth that it is an Islamic tradition, but there are many Islamic countries where it does not happen and it has nothing to do with religion.
“Finally the word is getting out there. I was in Ethiopia recently and it was reassuring to find out in an organic way, that the prevalence of FGM was dropping and it was one of the top countries in the world,” he said.
UN Zero Tolerance to FGM Day takes place th Thursday, February 6th