Last week, we took you across the Atlantic in an exclusive with author Hilary Burrage in the U.K. This week, we remain in the U.K. to bring you the outspoken survivor, educator, activist, wife and mother, Hibo Wardere in a riveting exclusive.
GWPF: Hibo, you are one of the most known survivors of female genital mutilation in the world. Please tell us of your experience with FGM as a child.
Hibo Wardere: I remember being given a fabulous party prior to the cutting day, I felt loved so much and also felt that whatever was going to happen I should be proud of it. I was made to feel that I was the center of attention and I thought I was filled with love from everyone around me. They were all females.
GWPF: How old were you when you underwent FGM?
Hibo Wardere: I was only 6 years old, a very skinny little girl who didn’t like food that much.
GWPF: In some West African countries, the excisors swear the girls to secrecy. Do they swear the girls to secrecy in Somalia as well?
Hibo Wardere: You are told never to discuss it with anyone. It becomes a muted subject after it happens. It becomes complete silence, and even you yourself don’t want to talk about it either.
GWPF: You fled your native Somalia for London. How old were you at the time, and how was your escape orchestrated?
Hibo Wardere: I came here to the U.K. when I was 18 years old. I didn’t know the English language at all. We left Somalia because it was descending in a civil war, so we went to Kenya and bought fake documents and I was the first one to travel to London.
GWPF: We read somewhere that you refused to accept FGM as a part of your culture; instead, you sought answers to why it was done to you. Did you ever get an explanation, and if so, what was the explanation?
Hibo Wardere: I never accepted it at all. I was determined to know why I suffered so much pain and why I was ignored when I was begging for mercy. I just wanted to understand why. Finally, when I was 16 years old, my mother told me that I was cut because they wanted me to remain a virgin until I got married, and that we are known as a family of virgins. My mother said that she was cut, my grandmother was cut, my great-grandmother was cut and so was my great-great-grandmother. She said, “It is our culture, Hibo, and you are no different from us”. My reaction was, “I went through this pain because you wanted to keep me a virgin for a man? It is all about him then!” My mother did not reply.
GWPF: Now, you yourself are a mother. Do you have any daughters? If so, what have you told her or them about FGM?
Hibo Wardere: I have 3 daughters, and I only told them four years ago. I didn’t ever discuss this with anyone accept my husband. So when I told them, it was quite shocking for them. My oldest daughter who is now 19 years old felt that I betrayed her trust. You see, what I have with my children is transparency and we discuss everything, but this part of my life I kept to myself. I explained to her that I needed to have this conversation with myself first. I needed to confront my demons before I could tell them about it. Finally, she did understand and today, she and my 14 year old and my 9 year old are so proud of my work. They tell me that they are lucky that they escaped it; and so am I because if we had been in Somalia, and I said “no” to FGM for my daughters, it would not have mattered because a family member would have still had it done to my girls. I am glad I left and came to the U.K. I gained my freedom for both me and my kids.
GWPF: How does your husband feel about your activism against the practice of FGM?
Hibo Wardere: He is the most amazing man on the planet. He was there for me since the day we met. He has always encouraged me to talk about it. He is just a wonderful father, an amazing husband, and a great friend. He is my rock too. He supports me fully 100% and I am the lucky one to have such a strong man. He gets all kinds of criticisms from other men; they tell him, “Your wife talks so openly about your life; why, are you not the man of the house?” He just tells them, “We are equal and she is free to do and say what she wants; she is an individual human being, and she is allowed to express herself.” He is just a beautiful man in my eyes and of course I married him, didn’t I?
GWPF: Is it your opinion that men should actively join the campaign against FGM?
Hibo Wardere: Men are the biggest missing part of this fight; we need to engage men and boys. They have no idea of how this affects women fully. We have to reach out to them and educate them about FGM. Men have to understand that this horrific practice inflicted on us is on their behalf. They can’t escape it. This is a lifelong damage caused to us in their name, and they need to understand and join the fight because we need them. We can’t win without their voices. They are extremely crucial to our fight. They think it is a woman’s issue and so they don’t discuss it but it is affecting them in so many ways. Some men divorce their wives because they can’t deal with women who don’t enjoy intimacy with them. It is causing emotional problems. One man said that he got married to a woman who had undergone Type 3 FGM (Infibulation). He didn’t want to consummate the marriage because he felt that he would hurt her. So the next day, he was deemed as ‘not man enough’, and this has left him with emotional and psychological problems. He said he doesn’t want to be married again because of that. So you see, men are affected and we need to engage them in massive scales.
GWPF: You are now a special FGM educator in the United Kingdom’s school system. Please share with us how you were appointed to that position?
Hibo Wardere: I was a Teaching Assistant when I disclosed that I had undergone FGM. I wanted my Head Teacher to understand it and to add it to the Child Protection Policy about FGM. Then my Head Teacher did not ask me to share it with other schools; so I began by telling my story, and I developed training sessions. I did that for a year while I was still a fulltime Teaching Assistant. Where I live, I am very well-supported by the local authorities, and they knew that I was going to different schools and talking to teachers. I started to talk to students, and next thing I knew, every school started to get in touch with me. My local journalist wrote to me about what I was doing in my local area. After that, the national media became interested because I was the one successful in the use of my educational tool. What really made it successful for me is that I was using my story to teach adults and the youth, and it worked. Then my local school authorities employed me to do it full time, and I have been doing this since July 2015. Now, I am a Waltham Forest FGM Mediator for the entire area and my work is greatly documented. I am now recognized nationally for the work we are achieving, whether it is engaging the community or professionals. I am also part of our local Health Department, and I train health professionals about FGM as well.
GWPF: How do you get schools and communities to listen to you and cooperate with you?
Hibo Wardere: It wasn’t easy to start, especially with the communities. It took a long time for them to trust me and see that I was on their side, and that all I wanted was to educate them about the dangers of FGM. I also wanted to offer them services that were out there for them, but no one was engaging them at all. I was also honest with the women about the suffering that was going on with me, and after that, they came on board and started to listen. What is happening in my local area wasn’t happening elsewhere but now everyone is seeking our advice on how to go about it. I was already a part of the education system in the first place, and when one school told other schools how good my work was, they all got on board. Now, I am fully teaching students and it is amazing work that is being produced. I always create school ambassadors to deliver in their own schools; it is about empowering the young people with knowledge.
GWPF: Tell us about your workshops when teaching FGM. How do the parents accept your teachings?
Hibo Wardere: In the secondary schools, they don’t need parents’ permission and that’s the best thing about it. In my primary schools, they do need the parents’ permission, and sometimes it is up to the Head Teacher to decide. In my workshops for secondary schools, I am brutally honest about what FGM is; I tell them all about the types of FGM, and I show them illustrations and pictures of the various types of FGM. I also tell them that I have experienced it myself, and I answer any questions they have, however difficult it might be. With children, you have to be extremely honest with them. That is why my work is so successful. The children get to hear from someone who experienced it. They understand my emotions and after that, they just run away with what they learn, and use their creativity to produce amazing work on FGM. I feel so privileged to witness that.
GWPF: What do you think the best strategies are to help end FGM?
Hibo Wardere: For me, I will always use education because I know it works and I do know most of the women have not yet connected their daily problems to FGM. We need to make that connection for them. They also don’t see it as child abuse, and also we need to make them understand that it comes through education. The women see it as something to be proud of; they need to know that it is protecting their girls but all that can be changed through education. We have evolved as humans because of education and it is what will deliver us from horrific cultural practices. The women need to understand that they are also victims themselves. As women, we need to remember that.
GWPF: What message do you have for other mothers around the world in protecting their daughters from FGM?
Hibo Wardere: Be strong and remember what you went through, then look at your daughter and see how special and beautiful she is. Look how she looks up to you as her protector, how happy she is. Think of yourself how happy you were before FGM. Think of how much she loves you; you are her fierce lioness. Don’t feel like you’re alone; there is always help out there for you. But most of all, remember that you are protecting what God deemed to be a beautiful human being. Your daughter is yours only, no one else’s. Protect her ‘right’ to have her full body, her ‘right’ to enjoy her body too. Keep protecting her human rights that was taken away from you. You are protecting LOVE.
GWPF: Do you foresee the end of FGM in Somalia someday? If so, what about in the world?
Hibo Wardere: I am optimistic that one day we will see the end of FGM; when that day is, I don’t know but we will get there. Worldwide, we need to enforce the education and the law, and both education and the law must go hand in hand together in order to achieve this. We are on the right path but a very long one with all kinds of hurdles in our way to the finish line. The key is that we just need to keep going and continue to break the hurdles in unity. FGM is a universal calling for everyone to fight it. It is child abuse that has no color or race; it is everyone’s business. I broke the cycle for my beautiful girls and now other mothers can do the same.
GWPF: So you’ve written a book that is expected out soon. Congratulations on sharing your story. We don’t have enough books on FGM, so we welcome more. Tell us about the book.
Hibo Wardere: The book is titled, Cut – One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today. It is scheduled to be released on April 7th this year. It is a book of hope but for me, it is about taking my trauma and turning it into a positive outcome. It took me more than 4 decades to discuss FGM. It means whatever abuse one has suffered, you can transform that experience into a tool for the greater good.
Reference Links to Hibo’s work:
Don’t miss who’s coming up next week in An Exclusive! Be sure to check it out.