Hibo Wardere is on a mission. The anti-FGM campaigner’s book, Cut: One woman’s fight against FGM in Britain, speaks out against the brutal treatment of women and girls while drawing on her own experiences.
“When she made the first cut, I was consumed from head to toe with pain.” Hibo recounts the moment when, aged six, her mother took her to a makeshift hut to be mutilated.
Hibo was a victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia, which has the highest prevalence of the procedure in the world. Around 98% of girls undergo the brutal procedure, which can lead to infection, infertility and death.
“It’s to preserve your virginity until you are married,” says Hibo. “As a woman, you are controlled from the day you are born. You can’t make decisions about your own life, because everything is decided for you.”
The day before the cut, her family had held a huge party with Hibo at the centre of attention. There were gifts and food, and everyone seemed happy. Hibo was told she was about to become a woman. She was convinced something amazing was about to happen.
As an infant at school, Hibo had experienced bullying as a result of not having been cut. She was tormented by other girls, and segregated in the playground.
Shattered from the singling out she was getting at school, Hibo went home and asked her mother to cut her.
“I didn’t understand what it meant, because although the girls who had been through it were proud of it, they never talked about it. It was a muted thing,” she explains.
Hibo was awoken early in the morning and taken to the makeshift hut where her aunt and three people she’d never met were waiting.
“All the love that you have been shown the day before gets stripped away in the most painful way you can imagine,” she says.
Hibo describes how she sat on the floor in the hut, while her arms were pinned back. She was told to relax, before two women painfully yanked her legs apart. Then a woman on a stool – the cutter – drew different sized scalpels from a bag around her neck. Hibo was utterly helpless.
“Everywhere was on fire. I screamed and screamed. There was no anaesthetic, and nobody helped, not even my mother.
“The woman kept on cutting and cutting and cutting. Wave after wave of pain just kept coming I wanted to die, because it would be better than experiencing this pain.” As part of the horrific experience, Hibo was sewn up.
The pain doesn’t stop there. “It gets worse when you’re married,” says Hibo.
“I’m glad I didn’t get married there. Your husband has to force his way in, which means your flesh is ripped apart.” As a young child, Hibo believed her life would be full of pain, from being mutilated to being married to giving birth.
“There is depression, there is divorce and there is domestic violence. Every aspect of your life is touched by this barbaric cut,” says Hibo. “And the worst thing is, we are told not to talk about it.”
A recent Unicef report states that at least 200 million women and girls from 30 countries have undergone FGM. In most of the countries, the majority of girls were cut before the age of five.
Hibo came to the UK in 1989, but didn’t speak about her experience until four years ago. As a teaching assistant at Walthamstow school, Hibo had bonded with a ten-year-old girl, but there were suspicions that the girl was going to be taken out of school to undergo FGM.
“It filled me with rage and I thought, we really need to talk about this. It’s now or never.”
From then on, Hibo has been a spokesperson against FGM, by campaigning in schools, training teachers and working with doctors in Waltham Forest, as well working with the Metropolitan Police.
Hibo teaches people that there is a connection between FGM and the horrors that follow it, such as depression and domestic violence.
There have been 3,000 FGM injury-related cases in UK hospitals in the past few months. A recent government report suggests that girls aren’t just being taken abroad to have surgery – it is happening in living rooms up here in the UK.
Four types of procedure as defined by the World Health Organisation
- Type 1: Often referred to as clitoridectomy, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
- Type 2: Often referred to as excision, this is the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora (the inner folds of the vulva), with or without excision of the labia majora (the outer folds of skin of the vulva ).
- Type 3: Often referred to as infibulation, this is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the labia minora, or labia majora, sometimes through stitching, with or without removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy).
- Type 4: This includes all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.
Hibo Wardere’s book, Cut: One woman’s fight against FGM in Britain is available to pre-order from Amazon. Hibo will be discussing her book at Walthamstow library on Saturday 16 April, at 1800. Tickets to the event are £3 and are available through Waterstones.