Sadia Hussein had been in labour for three days when she felt she could take no more. She could hear her mother crying in the distance, pleading with God to save her daughter’s life.
But even though things were clearly not progressing as they should have been, the women in her small Kenyan village were resistant to the idea of sending her to hospital. Her mother told her that doctors would “tear her apart” with a pair of scissors; that, at home, they could at least use a razor. “So now, on top of the overwhelming pain of labour, there was this continuous cutting,” Hussein recalls.
Eventually, Hussein gave birth to a baby girl. When she came to, several hours later, she found her legs had been tied together, making it impossible for her to sit up, let alone hold her newborn. Her mother came into her room and brought her tea, and Hussein asked her to help her cradle the baby. “I couldn’t control my tears,” she says, now. “I was telling my daughter: ‘I love you so much. My mother failed to protect me but I will protect you.’ And that’s when I swore that this should never happen to my daughter.”
Hussein’s horrendous labour was a direct result of the female genital mutilation (FGM) she suffered at the age of 10. Like so many women, her trauma did not end there. It returned, years later, when she got married, and underwent further cutting to prepare her body for sex. And it was there once again, in labour, when she feared she would lose both her baby’s life and her own.
Hussein was then only 21, but, suddenly, after years of suppressed anger and confusion, she knew her own mind: her daughter, Maryam, would never suffer as she had. No one would ever be allowed to take her, in the quiet of the morning, into the bush, hold her down, and use a razor to mutilate her. Hussein’s mother, defiant, accused her of cowardice; of not being able to handle the normal difficulties of childbirth. She insisted that her granddaughter would go through exactly the same experience she and generations of women had before her.
“And I told her: ‘You are my mother, but you are not the mother of my daughter. I will decide what should happen to my daughter,’” says Hussein.
It was in this fug of hormones, fury and maternal audacity that Hussein resolved to take this confrontation out of her parents’ house and into the wider world. After all, Maryam was not the only child in Kenya at risk of FGM, and her mother was far from the only adult who saw it as normal. “This is when I said this should not happen to any other girl,” she says. So she set about trying to change minds, one family at a time.
There are an estimated 200 million girls and women alive today who have undergone FGM, the vast majority of them living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Most are cut by the age of 15; some undergo the practice when they are just days old. Despite international opprobrium, progress in stamping out FGM has been uneven. Laws banning it are not consistently enforced, taboos remain, and in some communities it is still regarded as an essential part of womanhood. As a result, in several countries – all of them in Africa – more than 80% of women go through it.
In Kenya, where FGM has been illegal since 2011 and is punishable with a minimum three-year prison term and/or a fine of at least 200,000 shillings (about £1,300), an estimated one in five women and girls aged between 15 and 49 have undergone some form of the procedure. But that average hides a more complex picture. In the north-eastern region, bordering Somalia, the rate is estimated at 98%; in the west it is 1%. The prevalence also varies dramatically between ethnic groups. A Unicef study last year found that girls from poor backgrounds in rural areas, with lower levels of education and identifying as Muslim, were most likely to have undergone FGM.
To Hussein, who still lives in the pastoralist community in eastern Kenya where she grew up, these findings are grimly familiar. A member of the Wardei, a Somali-speaking, predominantly Muslim tribe living mostly along the banks of the Tana River, she was brought up among people who considered FGM a religious requirement and a key element of a girl’s marriageability.
Now 34, Hussein is one of Kenya’s most powerful and persuasive advocates for the eradication of FGM. As the founder of the grassroots Dayaa Women Group and the Brighter Society Initiative, she is credited with reducing support for the practice in her native Tana River County, and saving hundreds of girls from the knife. A recent survey found that the number of people in the county who were “changing their minds” about FGM had gone from 60% in February 2019 to 97% in January this year. She is the recipient of accolade after accolade, including, in March, a Commonwealth Points of Light award for “her outstanding contribution to eradicating FGM and empowering girls across Kenya”.
Before she was cut, Hussein remembers being mocked as a young girl by classmates who told her she wasn’t clean. “Every time I would cry because I felt I was less of a woman.” Quite what becoming a woman entailed she wasn’t sure; whatever it was was shrouded in mystery. She thought, with heartbreaking innocence, it might have something to do with being washed.
It was just before sunrise that she was taken into the bush by her mother and grandmother. “I was extremely excited. I was expecting a lot of water; I would become clean,” she says. Even when the women who had assembled around her in the bush began undressing her, she felt fine. “But when I look around I didn’t see any water. Instead I started seeing razors.
“I asked my mum: ‘What’s happening?’ Before she even answered me, a woman held me down on the ground. They laid me down on a woman’s lap. My head was lying on her chest so she was holding me tightly. Some of them were pulling my hands apart. Other ones were pulling my legs apart. One was pressing my chest down to the ground. Then there was one woman who was putting a piece of cloth like this into my mouth,” she says, holding her headscarf in her fist.
“So I’m like: ‘Oh God, please save me.’ Before some minutes passed I could feel the sharp pain. And I thought: so the razor was to cut me. I just looked up to the sky praying to God. Because there was nothing else I could see. I was just held like this, facing the sky. Helpless.”
There are various forms of FGM, and Hussein underwent the most extreme: type 3, also known as infibulation, which involves the labia being cut and repositioned in order to create a seal and narrow the vaginal opening. The woman who cut her was her grandmother. Afterwards, her mother blithely told her it would take a fortnight for her to recover, but it actually took two months. “And imagine – no anaesthesia, no painkillers.” Once the physical wound had healed, she buried her trauma, returned to school and decided what had happened “was OK”. More importantly, perhaps, “it was done, it was over”. Then, years later, she got married. And the nightmare began again.
In 1988 a poem by a Somali woman, Dahabo Musa, expressed the horror faced by women who, having undergone infibulation, have to endure their genitals being cut open once again when they marry, and often yet again when they give birth. “My grandmother called it the three feminine sorrows,” she writes.
The day of circumcision, the wedding night, and the birth of a baby
Are the three feminine sorrows!
I cry for help as my battered flesh tears.
No mercy. Push! They say,
It is only feminine pain,
And feminine pain perishes.
When Hussein got married the infibulation had to be reversed, again at the hands of a traditional birth attendant. “Because you have been completely stitched together, you have to be reopened,” she says. Again, she told herself that it was OK because “maybe it’s over now”. But then she became pregnant with Maryam, and the birth was the worst stage yet in her seemingly unending series of nightmares. “I couldn’t actually tell what was happening to me,” she recalls, speaking via Zoom from her home. “At some point I felt: I’m dead. I should just die. I gave up on life.”
Such experiences are not uncommon among women who have undergone FGM. A study by the World Health Organization carried out between 2001 and 2003 found that the practice, particularly type 3, significantly raised the chances of women suffering complications during the birth. The death rates of infants whose mothers had undergone type 3 FGM were 55% higher than babies born to women who had not suffered any mutilation.
Even now, when Hussein talks about what happened to her, she feels the pain afresh. “Initially I used to cry. But by continuously telling my story I can say I am healed. A little bit.” She wishes more survivors could feel this catharsis. All too often, she says, they remain silent – something she could never do.
It took another two months to recover from the birth. As soon as she had, she started spreading the word in her neighbourhood. She would put her sleeping daughter in a sling and visit other households, telling them that the way she had given birth was terrible and abnormal – and that FGM was to blame. “I said: ‘Can we agree that this should never happen to our daughters? And people were like: ‘Are you mad?’ No one listened to me.”
People complained to her mother, who did not support her, and then to a local official, who did. “He asked me: ‘Young lady, what’s your problem?’ And I told him: ‘We are really suffering and our women feel this is normal.’ He congratulated me, and said: ‘I’m proud of you.’ For the first time I had one person who supported me.”
Since then, life has been busy. Hussein has poured all her energies into making sure both her family and her country are free of FGM. On the first count she has undoubtedly succeeded: none of her daughters (there are three of them now, aged seven, 12 and 13) has been cut. Visitors to Sadia’s Twitter account are greeted by a video of her two eldest, Maryam and Naimah, reciting a poem entitled The Proud African Girls. “We were born perfect,” they say into the camera, waggling their fingers. “No need for mutilation, give us education!”
As for the country, she is doing her best, even if Kenya is far from achieving President Uhuru Kenyatta’s stated aim of eradicating FGM by next year. (Figures indicate it is making gradual progress, with prevalence decreasing by more than 4% every year, according to Unicef.)
Hussein started with community outreach, first close to home in Tana River County and then further afield, and has increasingly combined on-the-ground efforts with savvy media presence in all three of her languages, English, Swahili and Somali. After attending a workshop with the Global Media Campaign to End FGM, an organisation that has trained more than 500 local activists in eight African countries in how to use the media to amplify their work, she began to achieve startling results – the best the campaign says it has seen. In a recent impact survey it found that the number of people in Tana River County in favour of type 3 FGM had fallen from 89% in February 2019 to just 5% in January this year.
Hussein has learned that, for real change to happen, community-specific efforts are essential, rather than top-down policies drawn up in Nairobi. For instance, she says, in communities where FGM is seen as a rite of passage, there needs to be an alternative ceremony to mark a girl’s shift from childhood to adulthood. The challenge she has most often faced in her own part of Kenya is the claim that FGM is a part of the Islamic faith and that by fighting against it she is being profoundly irreligious. To refute that, Hussein, a devout Muslim, has commandeered local faith leaders to “delink FGM from religion”.
To date, Hussein reckons she has helped four villages reject FGM wholesale. In the first two, the solution was finding an alternative source of income for the cutters themselves. “They said: ‘Sadia, we are ready not to cut any more.’ I appealed to the district commissioner, and he assured me he would give each of them 12 goats, which he did. And now those two villages don’t practise FGM,” she says. In the third village, she says, it was the intervention of Islamic scholars on the radio that made the difference; before then, people thought she was “just parroting the words of white people”. And in the fourth, a series of “real conversations” between faith leaders, survivors, young people and a cutter led eventually to a consensus that FGM should be consigned to the past. “Every time I go to those villages I really feel happy, I feel proud,” she says.
Hussein’s persuasiveness lies in her formidable combination of intelligence, moral courage and bitter personal experience. It is hard for people to question her authority when she is so open and eloquent about everything that went wrong for her. As she puts it: “I know what I went through, so no one can challenge me and no one can tell me FGM has no consequences. A mother can call the radio, and say: ‘I gave birth to 15 kids and I never saw all the complications you’re talking about.’ I will still know how to challenge her.”
After her first birth, Hussein went through more troubles just a year later when she had her second daughter. “Imagine, this is a community where you are expected to give birth every year. And every time you give birth you have to be torn apart,” she says. “I’m like, this is hell.” It was several years before she gave birth to her third daughter via emergency caesarean section at a hospital in Garissa, more than 90 miles (150km) from her home. The doctor warned her it was the only way of delivering the baby safely.
It is a source of huge frustration to Hussein that there aren’t more women like her, who underwent FGM themselves and now reject it. Happily, her own mother eventually came round. But so many, she says, refuse to engage, often for fear of bringing shame or stigma upon their daughters. “I came to realise that most of the survivors are silent,” she says. “They feel this is a culture they should be proud of. They feel it’s OK for their daughters to go through it.”
The day before our interview, Hussein received a phone call from a man who was trying to convince his wife not to cut their daughter. “He said: ‘I have my mother-in-law and my wife here. Can you kindly enlighten them about FGM?’ Imagine: the wife is a graduate. She holds a master’s degree. She was challenging me and saying: ‘Sadia, I didn’t go through any complication. I don’t want my daughter to become a prostitute.’”
One day, she hopes she will be able to build women’s confidence to the point where there is “a mass movement of survivors, hundreds of Sadias, who can articulate their issues, who can share their personal experiences without being stigmatised”. In the meantime, she speaks out in whatever way she can, and when her own daughters are teased at school by those who think that not undergoing FGM is unhygienic, she tells them to respond simply: “We are already clean because we had a shower.”
Covid, of course, has been a setback. Hussein is in no doubt that there will have been an increase in cutting during the pandemic, with months of school closures and lockdown giving people the chance to “do anything they wanted to do”. At the same time, in-person community outreach has been difficult. But Hussein has redoubled her efforts online and in the media; she notes with glee that one recent Twitter post was seen by more than 16,000 people. She has written poems and songs. She is publicising a book she wrote last year, called A New Dawn for Children, which she hopes will help young people throw off the shackles of their elders’ beliefs.
“My biggest hope, that I dream of, is that we will have a society that is brighter for all of us when we empower these children,” she says. “I really want to invest in these children irrespective of their gender, irrespective of their religion, culture, race, colour. I want to have that society where everyone is accommodated, everyone is accepted, everyone can enjoy their rights, and everyone can defend, uphold and protect the rights of the other person.”
In the book, there is a poem about all children – girls and boys – having the right to an education. “Like the plane,” Hussein writes, “children should fly without restrictions.” It is this that she hopes will be her most enduring message. “I really want to leave a legacy where I live on in people’s souls, so people can say: ‘Sadia Hussein: education and not mutilation’, you know?”