Somalia Makes Legal History by First-Ever Trial of Female Genital Mutilation

Published July 26th, 2018 - 01:05 GMT
A young woman walks past a banner against female genital mutilation (FGM) at a conference in Nairobi (AFP)
A young woman walks past a banner against female genital mutilation (FGM) at a conference in Nairobi (AFP)

By Eleanor Beevor

Sometimes change comes at a tragic price. This week, Somalia announced its first ever prosecution in a case of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). This is a major development, and a first step towards legally combatting the practice in a country where well over 90% of women and girls are subjected to it.

The practice is so engrained in local culture that successive Somali governments have remained largely silent on the matter. But on July 25th, Deputy Prime Minister Mahdi Mohamed Guuled and Attorney General Ahmed Ali Dahir in Mogadishu announced the country would, for the first time, be taking a female circumcision perpetrator to court. Tragically, this move came in reaction to the news that a 10-year-old girl bled to death after undergoing the controversial cutting ritual. Deeqa Dahir Nuur underwent the most invasive, and most dangerous form of the cut alongside her three sisters, one of whom was younger than her. There are degrees of cutting during FGM. Flavia Mwangovya, a Programme Manager and expert in FGM at the women’s rights charity Equality Now told Al Bawaba:

In Somalia, the most extreme form of FGM is practiced. This is infibulation, which involves the removal of all external genitalia and stitching together the two sides of the vulva to leave only a small hole.”

A razorblade is commonly used for the cutting, and besides the pain and distress that the procedure causes, the risks of infection and blood loss are extremely high. It can also cause potentially lethal complications later in life, especially during childbirth.

This was what 10-year-old Deeqa was undergoing when the “cutter” (the ritual practitioner usually hired by families to do the procedure) severed an artery. Deeqa’s family live in the village of Olol, 50 miles from Mogadishu and a long way from the nearest hospital. Unable to reach medical help, they took Deeqa home, hoping that the bleeding would stop. But Deeqa developed tetanus and continued to lose blood. Two days later she was taken to hospital, but by then blood loss and complications from the tetanus had rendered her situation hopeless. She died on July 17th. 

Death from FGM is sadly common in Somalia. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it is certainly a widespread phenomenon. And Deeqa’s death might have gone unnoticed by the world, had it not been for her distant relative Nafisa Ogle. Ogle is a journalist, and found out about the story when Deeqa’s uncle came to her house looking for a container to wash the body in. After verifying that Deeqa had died from the effects of FGM, Ogle broke the story on social media, which led to journalists all over the world to cover it. And it appears that the outrage over the death, both inside and outside Somalia, pushed the government in Mogadishu into taking this unprecedented legal step.

Young women attend an art lesson at a center that provides support for sexual violence victims in Mogadishu (AFP)

But given this is the first ever FGM prosecution in the country, it is still unclear how the case will proceed, who exactly will be charged, or what legal ramifications those deemed responsible can expect. Currently, there is no explicit legislation against FGM that the government can base its case on. Somalia's Attorney General Ahmed Ali Dahir announced, Wednesday, 25 July, 2018 that Mogadishu was ready to prosecute, but first the facts of the case would have to be fully established by an investigation team, who would be travelling to Deeqa’s home village. Dahir also announced that the prosecution would use Somalia’s penal code as a legal basis for the case, which protects individuals’ right to life. 

Whilst FGM is considered to be constitutionally outlawed in Somalia under broader penal codes against bodily harm, campaigners believe that specific laws criminalizing FGM are necessary to deter the practice. However, they hope that this case will mark the beginning of this process. Flavia Mwangovya continued:

This case may trigger additional prosecutions which will in turn act as a deterrent to others and ensure victims and survivors of FGM can get redress where violations are committed. This is about building a positive jurisprudence around FGM prosecution if this and potential future cases are concluded in favour of victims and support the elimination of this practice due to its harmful effects. However, having an explicit law would provide more detail and nuance on the violations of FGM, provide specific remedies, and also outline obligations and measures to be taken by the State to end the practice, and to educate the public.”

For now, it can only be hoped that this tragic story raises awareness of the tremendous risks that the practice presents. 


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