Fighting female circumcision for over forty years

Dit artikel krijg je cadeau van OneWorld. Word abonnee
Her greatest pride isn’t that she learned how to drive as the first Somalian woman ever. Nor that she went to university in England as the first Somalian woman. It also wasn’t the fact that she was the wife of the President of Somalia, Ibrahim Egal. What is it then, that she is proudest of? That she was the first qualified midwife in Somaliland? Or the first female minister of her country? Or perhaps that forty years ago she was the first woman in the world who put female genital mutilation on the agenda?

She traded her pension and Mercedes for stones, cement and equipment

“I have a dream”

No. Edna Adan is most proud of her obstetric hospital in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, which she managed to build with her own capital. She traded her generous pension, saved during her international career at the World Health Organization (WHO), for stones and cement to build her hospital with. Her precious car, a beautiful Mercedes, was sold and the money used to buy equipment and supplies to help the women of her country who have been victim of FGM. In the hospital Edna single-handedly created a training center for midwives, who, after their training, will return to their remote villages to offer local medical aid.

In Edna’s hospital we meet Hawa Ali (32). She willingly shares her story with us. When she went into labor eleven years ago she had many complications due to her circumcision, ultimately she lost her baby. Her womb suffered so much damage that she had to permanently live in the hospital from then on. She’s incontinent and the medical facilities in her village are inadequate to deal with her condition, so she cannot return. “In my culture you aren’t a real woman if you’re not circumcised. No one will want to talk to you, your chances of a good husband are slim. They will call you dirty and yell: ‘Buuryo gab!’ at these girls. I hope I will one day become healthy enough to return to my village.” With the aid of the faciltiies in the hospital Hawa has been able to deliver two healthy children. Photo: Reinier van Oorsouw.

The prevailing notion was ‘let’s not meddle with odd African rituals’

With visible pride, the small, determined woman leads me passed the photos on the wall, they show her office in the hospital of Hargeisa. Edna with Bill Clinton, Edna with the former Dutch prime-minister Wim Kok, Edna with nearly about everyone in the world that matters, or used to matter. “Forty years ago, I visited the Netherlands”, she says. “When I mentioned FGM nobody knew what I was talking about. The prevailing notion was ‘let’s not meddle with odd African rituals’. I tried to make clear to people that this wasn’t just the piercing of someone’s ear or something like that, but an institutionalized form of the torture of women. There was little interest for what I had to say.”

People in the streets of Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. In this region 98% of women and girls are circumcised (source: HIRDA) the highest percentage in the world. Photo: Reinier van Oorsouw. 

A trendy topic

How different is this situation today? The international community has women’s rights, gender and female circumcision high on the agenda. Gender is trendy. Edna is not impressed. “It’s an exotic topic, and at the present moment thousands of research papers are written and conferences held on FGM. But do you know what the problem is?”, she asks rhetorically and with a fierce look.

“The millennium goals only exist on paper. Has this piece of paper ever been in Somaliland? Where the vagina of nine-year-old girls is cut away with a blunt razorblade, after which her legs are tied together for 45 days so she doesn’t bleed to death? After which she cannot pee, have sex or deliver a child normally anymore? Millennium goals exist on paper, and those papers are in New York. My own millennium goal manifests itself in one thousand qualified midwives, trained in my hospital, who are right at this moment helping women throughout Somaliland, on mountains and in remote villages, to give birth, and train other women to also become midwives.”

Less talking, more action

Edna has a few suggestions for the international community when it comes to fighting FGM. “Instead of buying another plane ticket to visit a conference where people in expensive suits talks about this problem, it is absolutely necessary to make the local community in the villages aware about the cultural misconceptions and the medical complications of female circumcision. Less talking, more action”, she says with a knowing look in her eyes.

Standing in her office, Edna shows to which remote areas in Somaliland she sends her qualified midwives. On the photo Edna Adan, two employees of HIRDA, Abdisalam Mohamed (a member of the media in Somaliland), and Marlies Pilon, journalist for OneWorld. Photo: Reinier van Oorsouw 

It is still her body and she is still his daughter

“We also have to change the perspective which we have taken to look at this problem. We have always focused on the women. I propose we are going to deal with the men now. Female circumcision isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s primarily a men’s issue, because it’s just a fact that men have the power here. Moreover, that little girl who is ripped open and mutilated, also has a father. If I would break the finger or tooth of one of his daughters, the father would angrily chase me down. The fact that we’re dealing with genitalia here, shouldn’t make a difference. It is still her body and she is still his daughter. He is still her father and head of the family. He should make certain nobody is allowed to torture his daughter in this way.”

A young girl in Hargeisa, capital of Somalilan. The percentage of circumcised girls and women in Somaliland is 98%. The average age to circumcise a girl is when she is nine years old. Photo: Reinier van Oorsouw

Men, show your anger!

In Somaliland, change only very slowly trickles down through the conservative religious society. To realize true change, men will have to show they are angry about female circumcision, according to Edna. “Women have put the issue on the table. We now have the attention of the whole world. Men have to join our ranks. Together, as a community, we have to choose to have a healthy society, with healthy women and children. Who doesn’t want that?”

Despite it being a Herculean task, Edna is convinced a process has been set in motion which cannot be stopped anymore. “Instead of removing the clitoris and the labia completely, an increasing number of women now choose a ‘Sunna’ circumcision for their daughter; a sting with a needle through the clitoris. You could call it ‘circumcision-light’. Of course I am for a total ban on the mutilation of girls and women, but it’s a process. Also, the issue has been made a topic of discussion on the ground by local organizations. For the first time ever I am hearing mothers publicly say: ‘I am not going to circumcise my daughter’. This is truly revolutionary!”


‘Half a bread is better than no bread at all’

Edna Adan admits that there is still a lot which has to change. But the small woman full of big deeds never gives up: “Ghandi once said ‘Half a bread is better than no bread at all’. Forty years ago nobody could have imagined that this hospital would exist, or that women would openly discuss this issue. I believe we are going to win this battle.”


Journalist Marlies Pilon and photographer Reinier van Oorsouw travelled to Somaliland in January 2015 for a journalistic report in cooperation with HIRDA, Free Press Unlimited and OneWorld.

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