A native of Mogadishu, Hibo Wardere lives with her husband and seven children in London, where she works as a teaching assistant at a local primary school. As a childhood survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM) who has at last begun to speak publicly about her ordeal, Hibo is on a mission to educate students and their parents how to stop FGM.
When I was six years old, I lived with in the Somali capital of Mogadishu. A lot the girls in my area had already undergone FGM. In fact, those who had teased me and told me I was unclean. After getting taunted, I asked my mother if I could have it done too. She said yes, and I thought it was a good thing.
A few days later we had a massive party and all the attention was on me. The next morning, I was woken up at about 5:00 and my mother gave me a big breakfast. They didn’t want to carry out the procedure when the sun was up.
My mother and my aunt had built a hut outside our home. They told me the hut was a special place for me. I was told to sit on the floor, in front of a woman. She put her hands underneath my armpits to hold me still. I was such a scrawny little girl that I felt like she was crushing my ribs. Another woman then yanked my dress up and pulled my legs apart, which hurt terribly. The lady sat in front of me, the cutter, didn’t make eye contact with me at all.
When the woman reached into the bag next to her, dozens of razors and blades fell out. They looked quite rusty because they were a brown shade. Then she pulled my clitoris so hard that I thought she was going to rip me with her fingers and I screamed because it was so painful. She then made one sharp cut.
The next thing I remember is that it felt like my whole body was one fire. It was ‘whoosh’ and then you don’t know what to do. You can’t breathe. I screamed for my mother and I screamed for them to stop. I was screaming because I wanted to die. I was engulfed in pain from head to toe – like fireworks going off everywhere and you don’t know how to stop them. I prayed to God to just take me then and there.
The woman kept asking my mother why I was screaming so much, and asked if I was a coward. She said none of the others cried like this, and asked my mother to tell me to shut up. My mother told her to keep quiet so the neighbours wouldn’t hear her screams.
Even after she had cut my clitoris off, the woman kept cutting. She cut the vaginal lips and then went inside and cut more. By that time, I think I had passed the pain, I just wanted to die and asked God to take me. The woman then started to sew me up, but I didn’t know what was left to sew.
I’m in my 40s and I still have flashbacks to that day. FGM is a life sentence. The emotional impact it had on me was huge – I couldn’t look at my mother anymore. All I could see was my hatred and despair. I kept asking my mother why I had been subjected to such brutality, but she never answered.
I used to think marriage was horrible because every female relative I had would end up in hospital after getting married. I made my cousin promise to tell us what happened and, one month after her wedding, she came back looking gaunt and unhappy. She told me, “Remember how we got cut when we were little? Your husband has to bulldoze that.” You lie in a pool of blood in the marital bed, proof that you were a virgin. And then later you get taken to hospital for treatment.
I fled to London after civil war broke out in Somalia in the late 1980s. The day I walked through Heathrow airport, all I saw was my freedom, my choice, my life. I kept crying with joy that I’d be choosing my own destiny.
Of course the doctors in England didn’t ask any questions when I had medical exams or gave birth to my children. Each time they just wrote “FGM” on my files. I didn’t speak much English and didn’t know what the letters stood for. Finally I went to the library and looked up the term. When I read about it for the first time, I realized: “This is what my trauma is.” For the first time I connected the physically and emotionally pain.
My mother and I didn’t talk about it much more, until one day when she was dying. I was sitting beside her one night as she lay in bed. Using some of her last energy she said: “”I need you to forgive me for what I did.” I told her that I already had, years ago, and that I would never allow my daughters to go through the same torment.
My mother’s face dropped with shock, and there was sadness in her eyes. I’d just explained why I’d forgiven her but she still thought, on her deathbed, that I should mutilate my girls. That’s how deeply rooted it is for the older generation. Even my generation can’t get away from it.
For years I never spoke about what happened to me. But to help teach a course on child abuse I realized I had to tell the story publicly. It took me all night to write the story, and I broke down many times, but it was kind of good to let it out. Since then, I’ve been going to schools and teaching staff and children about the effects of FGM. Eradicating female cutting is all education and engaging men, women and children. We can equip this generation with information about the procedure and by doing so, protect women and girls in the future.
There is much to be done to end FGM. I’m proud to be part of a rainbow campaign, led by people of all different colours and religions, to stop the practice. I hope I’ll be alive to see that day when we don’t have FGM anymore. I broke the chain in my family, and I can’t wait for the day when we see that chain break for good.