MOGADISHU, Somalia—Nasra Ahmed, 13, hasn’t gone to school this year. She wants to study. But she can’t attend classes because over the December holiday she underwent a brutal procedure known as female genital mutilation, or FGM.
“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 forced to undergo the ritual cutting. When she visited her parents in Somaliland, an autonomous region in northwestern Somalia, over the break, she said, they gave her to a traditional circumciser.
“I didn’t know this could happen to me,” Nasra said. “My mother had promised us that we’ll not undergo FGM because she wanted us to excel in education.”
Nasra is now unsure if she will go back to school. Most girls in this East African nation are expected to marry immediately after undergoing the procedure. Pregnancy usually occurs soon afterward.
The United Nations says female genital mutilation—which includes all procedures that intentionally alter or injure the female genitalia for nonmedical reasons—is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights. (See a related article, “Research—Latest Weapon Against Female Genital Mutilation.”)
Around 98 percent of women and girls in Somalia have undergone some form of FGM or cutting, according to Unicef. The ritual may involve the removal of the labia, clitoris or other parts of genitalia of girls and young women, and is often performed by untrained surgeons 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 say. Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrollment rates for primary-school-age children. Only 30 percent of children are in school, and only 40 percent of those students are girls. The percentage of girls usually drops as they move to higher grades because they undergo FGM 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, chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya and an advocate for the rights of women and minority groups across East Africa. “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, in northwestern Somalia, said a significant number of her 11- to 12-year-old female pupils never return after school holidays because most of them undergo female genital mutilation during the break.
“Most of the 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 an adult and can enter into marriage.
Omar said the trend was worrying everyone in the Somali education sector. The number of girls in school continues to drop yearly despite the government’s effort to make it possible for more girls to attend.
“We need to do something to ensure that these girls can still access education even after they have married and given birth,” she said. “We will have no girls in classes if the trend continues.”
Fifteen-year-old Hamda Abdullahi is a victim of female genital mutilation whose education stopped after she underwent cutting at the age of 9. She was married soon afterward to a 25-year-old man, she said.
“I was a very bright girl,” said Abdullahi, holding her 2-year-old son as she spoke. “Maybe I would have become a teacher, doctor or even a pilot. I was forced to undergo FGM during the school holiday. I got married to a man I didn’t know after he brought 10 cows.”
Abdullahi said her 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,” Abdullahi 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 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 provide 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 counterparts,” said Somalia’s education minister, Abdirahman Dahir Osman.
Omar, the primary-school teacher in Somaliland, encouraged girls across Somalia to enroll in schools 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 has 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.”