Eight years after fleeing war in Somalia, Ifrah Ahmed returned to her ravaged homeland with a mission — to end the “silent killer” of female genital mutilation.
Somalia has the world’s highest rate of FGM, affecting 98 percent of women, but Ahmed is undaunted by the challenge.
“Somalia is still dangerous, and I’m at risk from people who don’t like what I’m doing, but I always say if I can save one girl’s life, I will stay,” said the dual Irish-Somali citizen who has been based in Mogadishu since 2014.
Ahmed’s extraordinary journey from refugee to award-winning global activist has been turned into a film, A Girl From Mogadishu, expected to be released later this year.
“I can’t change what happened to me, but I don’t want any other girl to go through it,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in Dublin, Ireland, where the film premiered at the city’s International Film Festival on Friday.
The film tells how Ahmed, now 30, was cut when she was eight years old with her sisters and cousins. When she was 13 she was raped by soldiers and underwent FGM again. She later escaped child marriage to a man three times her age.
At 17, she traveled to Ethiopia, nearly falling prey to a trafficker reputed to sell girls into slavery in Saudi Arabia.
Another man intervened, promising to get her on a flight to the United States to join her aunt, but when the plane landed Ahmed discovered she was in Ireland, a country she had never heard of.
She spoke no English and knew nobody, but within six years she had galvanized a campaign against FGM, leading to Ireland outlawing the practice in 2012.
Ahmed now has her sights set on Somalia, where the prime minister has appointed her his gender advisor.
Her campaigning has brought the long-taboo subject into the mainstream media, earning her the nickname IfrahFGM.
Somalia practices the most extreme form of FGM in which the clitoris and labia are removed and the vaginal opening sewn up, leaving a small hole for menstruation and urination.
Ahmed’s grandmother called it “the three feminine sorrows” — the first is the cut, the second the wedding night, the third childbirth.
Girls are cut in groups and remain for weeks in a hut with their legs bound together while the wounds heal.
Urination was agony, said Ahmed. One of the girls next to her died from an infection because she could not urinate.
FGM affects some 200 million girls and women globally, according to U.N. estimates. Nobody knows how many die from bleeding, infections or childbirth complications later in life.
Many Somali families believe FGM will protect their daughters’ virginity and that it is a religious duty, even though it is not mentioned in the Koran.
“Mothers say, ‘It happened to me so I have to do it to my daughter’. I swear it makes my blood boil!” said Ahmed, who has suffered health problems as a result of being cut.
She says some religious leaders are on board with her “zero tolerance” message while others favor a milder form of cutting.
The debate around whether to outlaw some FGM or all FGM has held up the passage of Somalia’s 2016 bill to criminalize the practice.
“Religious leaders are the people who can change mothers’ minds,” Ahmed said. “We need them all to speak with one voice and say that FGM has no place in Islam.”
Ahmed, a “proud Irishwoman” and passionate Inter Milan fan, said returning to Somalia was a culture shock. Her critics accuse her of being brainwashed by the West.
Even in Ireland, she faced a backlash and death threats from members of diverse African diasporas.
She remembers one man asking her: “If I don’t do this with my daughters who will give me a dowry of 100 camels?”
But Ahmed, whose charity Ifrah Foundation has been working in Somalia since 2013, says attitudes are beginning to change.
The death from FGM of a 10-year-old Somali girl made headlines worldwide last year and led to the East African country announcing its first FGM prosecution.
“Deeqa’s death was a wake-up call. It is a turning point,” Ahmed said, adding that mothers were now more aware of the risks.
The campaigner also speaks out on sexual violence which remains widespread in Somalia. She says girls who are raped are often sewn up again.
Filmmaker Mary McGuckian, who has worked with Hollywood names including Donald Sutherland, Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel, did not initially think a film about FGM was viable, but said the climate had changed.
McGuckian realised the film’s potential when Ahmed left “two big burly cameramen” in tears as she related her story to them.
“Ifrah instinctively understood the power of testimony long before the #MeToo movement,” the director told the audience at the premiere attended by Ireland’s first lady, Sabina Higgins, a supporter of Ahmed’s work.
American actress Aja Naomi King plays Ahmed, and Somali singer Maryam Mursal her grandmother. British composer Nitin Sawhney provided the original score.
Ahmed, who was closely involved in the filming, hopes A Girl From Mogadishu will help lead to a global movement against FGM on the scale of the HIV/AIDS campaign.
“We all know FGM is a silent killer. My dream is to end FGM not just in Somalia, but everywhere,” she said.
Watch Ifrah Ahmed speak out against FGM below:
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Jason Fields, Thomson Reuters Foundation.)