After Hibo Wardere was ‘cut’ aged six, she asked her mother why she had been subjected to such brutality and was always denied a response.
“There were no words for what happened. I remember screaming so hard. Screams like that don’t exist in the world. The pain was the worst. You can’t breathe through it. You feel you’re going to drown any minute.”
Wardere was subjected to type three FGM where the clitoris and vaginal lips are removed along with vaginal tissue, and then sewn up. Her waist was mummified for 12 days, and to this day she still experiences severe pains.
Until last year we had no idea how many girls in Britain had been subjected to female genital mutilation. But after official figures emerged - the brutal magnitude quickly became clear.
Studies like this make the work of formidable Hibo Wardere, one of the anti-FGM campaign’s newer recruits more vital than ever. A mother of seven, full-time teaching assistant and now regular FGM educator of staff and pupils alike, she is on a mission to educate every secondary school student in the country on how to end the barbaric procedure for good.
“The youth are our future,” she smiles. “If we teach young people how to help, and give them the tools to help themselves, we can eradicate FGM for the generations to come.”
Female circumcision or ‘cutting’ of the external genitalia is practised in 29 countries worldwide, where more than 130 million women and girls are currently living with its after-effects. Particularly common across northern Africa, it is usually carried out before the age of seven. Nigeria and Gambia have very recently banned this practice.
Hibo may have only begun speaking out in the past few years, but the subject has never been far from her mind. She was forced to get ‘cut’ aged six in her native Somalia, an ordeal she describes as “being 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.”
While most girls accept this as an inevitable part of their culture, Hibo sought answers. “The emotional impact it had on me was huge. I couldn’t look at my mum anymore,” she remembers. “All I could see was my hatred and my despair.” Every day for the next 10 years, she would ask her mother why she had been subjected to such brutality and was always denied a response – until she struck a deal with a soon-to-be-married relative at age 16.
“I used to think marriage was horrible because every female relative I had would end up in hospital after getting wed,” she says. “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 us, ‘remember how we got cut when we were little? Your husband has to bulldoze that.’” As the girl lay in a pool of blood in her marital bed, her family danced around, elated that she had been proved a virgin. It was only later that she was taken to hospital for treatment.
Horrified by the revelations, Hibo soon 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,” she recalls. “I kept crying with elation, the feeling that I’d be choosing my own destiny.”
“I had this feeling of freedom when I arrived,” she says. “That I’m going to marry the man I want and have the life I want. I went to a doctor who opened me up so I could experience weeing like a normal person. It was the first major changing step in my life.” The doctor was only able to help Hibo urinate normally, she was subjected to so much damage as a child that she will never have healthy genitalia again.
“Imagine telling your husband that you cannot feel anything when you are making love, because that has been taken away from you. You don’t have a connection to your own body because they ripped your clitoris. You also suffer with constant infections, more than the normal woman because they have cut off completely your vaginal lips that protect from germs entering you. It’s like your eyelids being ripped off and you suffer with dryness too. Imagine even after 10 years of being with your partner you still experience pain when you are love-making.”
But when it came to seeking medical support for her wounds, her experience of the NHS’s FGM treatment was worlds apart from the newly implemented mandates. During each of her seven births, doctors failed to ask what had happened to her and merely wrote the acronym FGM on her files, made all the more galling by the fact she had never heard the term, and could barely speak English.
After a number of trips to the library, its meaning finally became clear. “When I read about it for the first time, I thought ‘oh my God, this is what circumcision is’, the dots of everything I was going through physically and emotionally finally connected.”
For Wardere and her fellow campaigners, these transparency directives have been long awaited. A recent UNICEF report found 63% of girls in her home country have had their genitalia sewn almost entirely closed, but that just 33% deemed the practice to be wrong, something she puts down to its lack of awareness among insular Somali communities.
This conflict in accepting the tradition has manifested itself in her family too, she has never spoken with her sister about her activism, and a frank exchange with her mother as she lay on her deathbed remains impossible to forget.
“One night, my mum came out of nowhere and said ‘I need you to forgive me for what I did.’ I told her that I already had, years ago.”
But the moment of reconciliation soured when Hibo explained that she would never allow her own girls to be put through the same torment. “Her face dropped with shock, and there was sadness in her eyes” she remembers. “I felt angry afterwards. I’d just explained why I’d forgiven her but she still thought, on her deathbed, that I should circumcise my girls.”
“That’s how deeply rooted it is for the older generation,” she explains. “Even my generation can’t get away from it.” It is this inability to part with archaic cultural practices that makes bringing successful prosecutions against perpetrators of FGM so challenging, as its victims’ sense of familial duty means they will never turn their parents in. Hibo too, admits that she could never have sought charges against her mother.
But as the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM is marked on the 6th February each year, the fight is showing signs of serious progress. Britain has taken the lead in the Western world’s crackdown on the tradition, the message that this will no longer be tolerated is finally being heard.
Hibo’s story was so powerful that it inspired one local artist Emma Scutt to paint Wardere as part of a triptych of FGM survivors. Emma decided to create ‘Stories from FGM Survivors’ which feature Hibo, along with FGM campaigners Leyla Hussein and Alimatu Dimonekene. The idea is to raise awareness about FGM, 66,000 women and girls are currently living with its consequences in the UK.
“There is much more to be done,” Hibo adds, “but I’m really proud to be part of this rainbow campaign, led by people of all different colours and religions.”
“I hope I’ll be alive to see that day when we don’t have FGM anymore,” she concludes. “I broke the chain in my family, and I can’t wait for the day when we see that chain break for good.”