SomGirlsMOGADISHU, Somalia –Nasra Ahmed, 13, hasn’t gone to school this year. She wanted to study. But she can’t attend classes because over the December holiday she underwent a brutal female genital mutilation, or FGM, procedure.

“I can’t go to school,” she said. “The pain still stings. I can’t walk properly. I didn’t want this to happen to me. I thought about escaping, but I couldn’t because my hands were tied.”

Nasra was in eighth grade at the Jabir Bin Hayan Primary School in Mogadishu before she was cut. When she visited her parents in western Somaliland over the break, she said they gave her to a traditional circumciser.

“I didn’t know this could happen to me. My mother had promised us that we’ll not undergo FGM because she wanted us to excel in education,” she said.

Nasra is now unsure if she will go back to school. Most girls in this East Africa nation are expected to marry off immediately after undergoing the procedure. Pregnancy usually occurs soon after.

Around 98 per cent of women and girls in Somalia have undergone some form of FGM, which involves the removal of the labia, clitoris or other parts of genitalia of girls and young women, according to the United Nations. Untrained surgeons often perform the ritual in unhygienic conditions. Women commonly suffer debilitating scarring, infections and other medical problems afterward.

As a result, thousands of Somali girls have abandoned their education, experts said. Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrolment rates for primary school-aged children – only 30 per cent of children are in school and only 40 per cent of these are girls. The percentage of girls usually drops as they move to higher grades because they get circumcised and drop out of school.

“It’s a challenge to educate a girl in Somalia, especially in central and Southern Somalia,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, an expert in Somali affairs and chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya. “Many families prefer to marry them off at an early age after they have undergone FGM. The girl child has no space in Somalia because there’s widespread child marriage perpetuated both through culture and religion.”

Muna Omar, a teacher at Istanbul Primary School in Somaliland, said a significant number of her 11 to 12-year-old female pupils never return after school holidays because most of them had undergone female genital mutilation during the break.

“Most of girls here drop out of school at the age of 11 to 12,” said Omar. “When schools are closed they are taken by their parents and forced to undergo FGM. After the procedure, you will never see them again. They get married to old men and disappear forever.”

The 28-year-old English teacher said female genital mutilation in Somalia is a transition into womanhood. Once a girl is cut, she becomes adult and can enter into early marriage.

Omar said the trend was worrying everyone in the Somali education sector. The number of girls continues to drop yearly despite the government’s effort to make it possible for girls to access education.

“We need to do something to ensure that these girls can still access education even after they have been married and given birth,” she said. “We will have no girls in classes if the trend continues.”

Fifteen-year-old Hamda Abdullahi has been a victim of female genital mutilation that cut her education short. She was cut at the age of nine and married soon after to a 25-year-old man, she said.

“I was very bright girl,” she said while carrying her two–year-old son. “Maybe I would have become a teacher, doctor or even a pilot. I was forced to undergo FGM during school holiday. I got married to a man I didn’t know after he brought ten cows.”

Abdullahi’s older sister could have been successful, too, had she completed her studies. She said her sister was cut by force during holiday, taken out of school, married off and has now had four children.“She used to be at the top of her class in all exams,” she said. “But her dreams were cut short.”

Female genital mutilation is not the only barrier to girls’ education in Somalia. Parents keep girls at home to help them with domestic chores, added Rajput.

“Household chores keep girls too busy to attend school,” she said. “Parents believe that their girls should stay at home and help them with work. Girls have low self-esteem and lack interest in education because there are social norms that favor boys’ education.”

The Somali government has joined forces with local and international nongovernmental organizations to stop female genital mutilation and create girl-friendly spaces for study and after-school clubs as well as sanitation facilities for girls to boost their enrollment.Many Somali schools don’t have girls bathrooms or sanitary napkins and other materials for adolescent girls.

“We are working to achieve gender equality in education so that our girls can go to school like their male counterpart,” said Somali Education Minister Abdirahman Dahir Osman.

Omar encouraged girls to enroll in schools countrywide so that they can excel in education and take an active role in the country’s academic, economic and political sectors.

“We want to see women taking the leadership of this country,” she said. “We want to see female lecturers, lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs.”

Nasra agreed. Despite her discomfort, she had her sights set on education.

“I want to heal and go back to school,” she said. “I will not accept to be married off and drop out of school.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in Al-Fanar Media.

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