On November 13, 2017, thousands of Somalilanders headed to the polls to choose their new president, standing in long queues under the harsh sun for the opportunity to cast their vote.
A lot was at stake in the auto declared country: the possibility of political reform, strengthening a shaky economy, and building relationships with neighboring countries.
But the election was also important for another reason: It presented Somaliland’s women with the unique opportunity to make their voices heard, and open up a conversation about women’s rights and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
“Even though the three candidates were men, the election was no longer gender neutral. Women are aware that they have power,” says activist Nimco Ali, who was in Somaliland lobbying the presidential candidates to commit to ending FGM.
All three candidates, including the winner President Muse Bihi, signed a pledge to bring in legislation to end FGM.
“I think this government is supportive, and things have changed for the better since the election,” says Nimo Marjaan, a 35-year-old activist and member of NAFIS network, an umbrella organization that advocates for anti-FGM policy in Somaliland and offers reproductive health education and support to women who have been affected by FGM.
In Somaliland, an estimated 99% of women have undergone some form of FGM, a procedure which involves partial or total removal of female genitalia or other damage to female genital organs, and many parts of society – from religious leaders to community elders – still strongly oppose any attempt to bring the tradition to an end.
“As well as focusing on policy to criminalize FGM, we also work to educate people about the health risks,” says Nimo, who in addition to being an activist, is a qualified medical professional. “At the beginning, I tell people about some medical issues, and then I tell them about the relationship between FGM and the medical condition, and they listen to me.” She adds that, particularly in rural areas, many people are not aware of the severe health and psychological effects that the procedure can have.
In a 2014 survey, more rural women than urban women believed the practice should be continued. But Nimo perseveres: “Some people are still against me. They tell us this is not our culture, and it’s not our religion. But mostly, when they hear about the dangers of FGM, they do support us.”
There is a long history of trying to outlaw FGM in Somaliland, and NAFIS has been on the frontline since the organization was founded in 2006, driven by the passion and commitment of women like Nimo. “It will still take a lot of time and effort to completely eliminate FGM,” she says. “But at least now the young generation has been educated about it, so they are supportive.”
Through facilitating culturally sensitive conversations between different religious, political, and social groups, NAFIS has made great strides towards the abandonment of the dangerous procedure. In January, the network helped draft an anti-FGM policy on behalf of some religious leaders who have agreed to speak up against FGM. In February, on the same day as International Day for Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, the Somaliland Ministry of Religious Affairs released an official fatwa, or religious edict, against FGM, potentially paving the way for legislation against the practice. The fatwa declares that those who perform FGM could face punishment, and victims can be eligible for compensation.
Bolstered by the fact that the government has passed its first anti-rape law and that Somaliland’s women are fighting for their rights now more than ever, Nimo is hopeful that it won’t be long before girls will no longer be subjected to the trauma of FGM.
But until then, she and her colleagues will continue challenging the traditions that subject women to such pain, educating communities, and supporting women.
Despite the difficulties, Nimo has hope: “We just have to keep going.”