Somaliland has the highest prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the world.  At the almost universal rate of 99.8%, there is scarcely a woman alive in the Horn of Africa nation today who has not undergone this harmful practice, despite decades of interventions by NGOs, community groups and UN agencies.  One of the main reasons for this - although there are many, as FGM exists in a cultural and religious web – is that of language, and our fundamental inability as an international aid community to speak to people in their language.

 

 

Female genital mutilation is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), a largely Western institution, as a procedure that “intentionally harms or causes injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons…[it] has no health benefits for girls or women”.  The practice is mostly carried out by traditional practitioners (often known as ‘circumcisers’) and typically performed in non-medical settings, such as in a family home, on girls between the ages of 5 -15. In Somaliland the most common age range for FGM is ages 8-11.

In order to understand why FGM is performed in Somaliland - and indeed why interventions to date have proved unsuccessful - it is important to understand the types of FGM that are performed.  There are 3 main types of FGM, although many activists add in a fourth category to describe harmful Western cultural practices that alter and remove parts of the female genitalia – including piercing and labia-plasty.

Type I FGM

The partial or total removal of the clitoris; in some cases it is a ‘ceremonial’ cut of the clitoris, but not removal.  In Somaliland, this is known as “sunna cut” or “sunna”.

Type II FGM

Often referred to as excision, Type II FGM is the partial or total removal of the clitoris as well as the labia minora.

Type III FGM

Also known as infibulation. Type III FGM is the narrowing of the vaginal opening by removing or repositioning the clitoris, labia minora and labia majora to create a stitched seal in place of the genitals.  In Somaliland, this is referred to as the ‘phaoronic cut’.

In Somaliland, the most common type of FGM practiced is Type III FGM, or ‘infibulation’.  While all types of FGM are forms of violence and child abuse, infibulation is arguably the most extreme type – with the most serious side effects including bleeding, fistula, complications during sex and childbirth, and even death.  Activists and religious leaders in Somaliland are keenly aware of this fact, and therefore have been campaigning for a shift from infibulation to Type I FGM – or ‘sunna’.

Sunna cut, endorsed by a number of religious and societal leaders in Somaliland, is not just considered to be a “lesser evil” (although let us remember that it still involves the violent cutting of a girl’s genitals), but, in fact, it is not considered a form of FGM at all.

This is where language plays a monumental role in our understanding of the practice of FGM.

The Somali language is one of poetry.  Until 1972, Somali was an oral language, and thus an expressive and conversational language that emphasises beauty in communication.  This runs in stark contrast against the often-utilitarian nature of the English language, and particularly in the way that native English speakers shorten complex cultural ideas and practices into sound-bites and acronyms.  ‘FGM’, to Somalilanders, is meaningless; a clunky English expression that directly translates to nothing.  As one Somalilander activist put it at an FGM workshop on communication, “FGM is problematic – it’s in English, it’s a three-letter acronym, it’s not relatable”

In Somali language, the term ‘sunna’ is associated with a religious ceremony, a rite of passage.  It is not considered harmful as the cut is understood to be required by religion.  On the other hand, the Somali expression used for ‘FGM’ is is ‘gudniinka phaoronica’ – which translates directly as ‘circumcision phaoronic’, or phaoronic cut.  Here we see a fundamental difference in the way that two languages and cultures understand the same practice.  In Somali, FGM is understood as being restricted to the phaoronic cut, or infibulation.  In English, it is understood to mean a spectrum of different forms of cuts and harms to the female genital organs.  As such, what many global activists against FGM understand to be a harmful, violation of a girl’s body is considered something completely different by that girl’s family and community leaders: a sacrosanct rite of passage.

If we look deeper, we see that that movement to end FGM in Somaliland, while unsuccessful in English or Western terms, is seeing some traction in a Somali context.  While 96% of Somali women aged 25 or over have undergone Type III FGM, or ‘gudniinka phaoronica’, we are seeing a change in the younger generation – 34% of girls aged 12-14 years have undergone Type III, with families instead opting for sunna cut as a way to observe religious custom while ‘not doing harm’ to their daughters.  Many Somalilanders consider therefore, that they are ending FGM.

Here we see an opportunity for UN agencies, NGOs and activists to engage with Somalilanders on ending all forms of FGM – and that opportunity is to open up discussion on what FGM means, what definitions each culture and language has, and speak to Somalis in their language.  We need to change the way we talk about harmful practices in a way that relates to people’s lived experiences.  Acronyms are getting us nowhere.

 

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