As It Happens

'A horrific nightmare' Female genital mutilation survivor shares her story in Ottawa

Hibo Wardere is survivor of female genital mutilation (FGM). The Somali-born activist says in order to end the practice globally, we need to call it out for what it is — a traumatic experience for young women and girls, instead of a cultural rite of passage.
Hibo Wardere is a survivor of female genital mutilation. The Somali-born activist now lives in the UK and just released her book "Cut: One Woman's Fight Against FGM in Britain Today." (Hibo Wardere)
On Wednesday, Hibo Wardere did not hold back in her speech to politicians in Ottawa. But it wasn't an easy speech to deliver. Wardere is a victim of female genital mutilation, or FGM. She was forced to undergo the procedure at the age of six, in Somalia, where she was born and raised. Today, Wardere is a leading activist against FGM. But it has taken her 40 years to speak publicly about her experience.

This week, Canada's federal government added its voice to a growing international chorus, demanding that the practice of FGM be abolished globally. 

As It Happens host Carol Off spoke with Wardere about her campaign and the challenges she faces. Here is part of their conversation.

Warning: some of the details in this interview are graphic and disturbing.       

A Pokot girl walks to a place where she will rest after being circumcised in a tribal ritual in the town of Marigat in Baringo County, Oct. 16, 2014. More than a quarter of girls and women in Kenya have undergone genital cutting, according to United Nations data. (Siegfried Modola/Reuters)

Carol Off: Ms. Wardere, you delivered a very personal speech on Wednesday to members of parliament. What did you tell them?

Hibo Wardere: This is in my heart. It's engrained in my heart and in my soul. I explained I was only six years old when I came from school in tears because I was bullied at school so much because I wasn't cut. The other girls seemed to take that very personal and crucify me every time there was a break or lunch time — singing at me, telling me, "You are dirty. You can't touch Qur'an." I just had enough and I came back home and said, "You have to cut me." I never knew what it was but I just knew that these girls were very proud of it so it must be something very good. My mother agreed to that and what happened next was, a few days later, she arranged a huge party, which takes place before you are cut. All the relatives, especially females, there's no males around, it's all female instigated, were all there. Everyone was telling me, "You're going to be brave. You're going to be a woman. Given all kinds of presents." I just felt on top of the world, like a child who wakes up Christmas morning and they get all these presents. But they never ever talk about what is the cutting. They never tell you what happens.

A girls speaks as she takes part with other young women and men in a discussion on female genital mutilation (FGM) at an after school program for children's rights at Sheikh Nuur primary school in Hargeysa on February 19, 2014. (Nichole Sobecki/AFP/Getty Images)

HW: With the delegation last night and the members of parliament, I was very blunt in telling them the truth. I didn't want to sugar coat and make them go away with no feelings. I wanted them to leave with feelings. I explained, how I got held down by my auntie and the cutter's helper, and my mother was standing there. How I was ripped apart. How I was screaming for dear life and begged, and begged, for mercy. But nobody stopped. Six years old and I actually prayed to die that day. I prayed because the pain was so great it just literally consumed me from head to toe. It was just too much.

Young girls in Keur Simbara, a village in Senegal that has abandoned female genital cutting. This is a generation of girls that will never be cut. ((Orchid Project) )

HW: The cutter had a horrific razor blade that didn't even look like a razor blade. It had all kinds of shades of brown, you name them, they were on it. They were dirty razors. That is the razor that she will use for 10 or 20 girls that day. No hygiene involved, nothing. No anesthesia at all. You are just butchered. You could see your flesh. You could see your blood all over her hands. It was a complete, utter horrific, nightmare.

CO: How has it affected you throughout your life?

HW: Physically, I had Type 3 which is total removal of the genatalia. What that means is that your urethra where you urinate is completely sealed up. So, how do you urinate? You are constantly having urinary infections. Then you hit puberty and your nightmare magnifies a million more times. How does your period come out? That is the question.

CO: There are an estimated 200 million women and girls who have had their genitals cut in one of the ways you've described. It continues to happen. Every day this is happening to girls around the world. Your mother watched and I presume she was cut herself. How is it that mothers can allow this to happen to their daughters?

HW: You have to remember all these mothers are loving. Trust me when I tell you, they're all loving. They see this, performing this, as part of their duty. If you didn't cut your girls there's a social stigma. It's a social death because nobody is going to marry your girls. They will think that they sleep with anything that moves. There's a lot of community pressure that comes with that.

CO: You are leading a campaign to bring this awareness to other countries to do what they can to stop this from happening. But at the same time, there are those who are saying all the efforts to stop this are just driving the practice underground. We even spoke to an American gynecologist who said it should become legal to do some cutting, some less invasive cutting. What do you say to her?

Gynecologist Dr. Kavita Arora on why she thinks some forms of FGM are acceptable

HW: You are saying child abuse. What she is saying is we should put community needs, and community culture, and community sensitivity, first.  But where is the child's right in this? We are talking about a child who is going to be altered for life. That is one thing that I will never accept. If I had a choice, if I had a choice, this would have not happened to me or anybody else. But for her, she's not the one that was cut. For her it's easy to say that, "Let's medicalize it or let's do a little tiny procedure." You can't dance with child abuse — there's no compromising on child abuse.

For more on Hibo Wardere's story, listen to our full interview.