Ending female genital mutilation in Djibouti

“I could see the regret in my mother’s eyes. But it was too late.”

By Eva Gilliam
A woman gathers with children, Djibouti
UNICEF Djibouti/2018
06 February 2019

DJIBOUTI, Djibouti – Mariam Kako was just five years old when she was subjected to female genital mutilation.

“I can remember everything, every little detail about that day, those moments,” she says. “It’s all still in my head, where it happened, who held me down, the balcony above me. And how it was all masked by a party with gifts and music.”

Mariam’s clitoris, and inner and outer labia were removed with a razorblade, and then the two sides were stitched tightly closed. This is the most common of the three types of FGM practiced in Djibouti, known as the pharaonic type.

“I could see the regret in my mother’s eyes. But it was too late.”

Although the practice has been illegal in Djibouti since the 1980s, it was, and still is, a tradition of a majority of the ethnic groups in the country.  The Afar, for example, practice FGM in the weeks after birth, and the Somalis mostly just before puberty, up to 15 years old.

The movement to abandon FGM started in the 1980s, and has slowly but steadily gathered momentum over the last 25 years – a generation’s worth of momentum. And Miriam is now part of that movement.

“The tradition ends here”

Over 10 years later, in 2005, Mariam joined a community empowerment programme, where she learned about women's rights, democracy, health, environment, child protection and project management. She also learned about the dangers of FGM, and joined a movement to end the practice in her country.

So when Mariam married her now-husband Ali and became pregnant with a girl, she knew that she did not want her daughter to undergo FGM.

“My baby girl was perfect. And I looked at my mother, and I said she was not allowed to cut her. The tradition ends here.”

But Mariam’s mother was a staunch traditionalist.  A week after giving birth, Mariam left the house to collect her training graduation certificate. Her mother saw the opportunity and called a traditional cutter from the neighbourhood. When Mariam and her husband returned, her newborn baby was bleeding and screaming.

"How could I have let this happen to my daughter, after I had promised she would be saved?"

Over the next 40 days, Mariam and Ali’s baby continued to bleed, and at six months, she had dropped to below her birth weight. Infection was shutting down her little body.

“I was ashamed and I was scared. How could I have let this happen to my daughter, after I had promised she would be saved?” says Mariam. “If I went to the doctor, it would be like an admission of guilt, unless I told the truth and denounced my mother and my husband – which I could not do. I was paralyzed. I could only answer the doctor’s questions with monosyllables.”

At six months old, Mariam’s daughter gave in to the infection and died.

“I could see the regret in my mother’s eyes. But it was too late.”

A woman takes a photo with a mobile phone, Djibouti
UNICEF Djibouti/2018
Mariam (left) is now a trained volunteer and works with women like Aicha to change attitudes and behaviours surrounding FGM.
“The right to whole and complete bodies”

Intensifying efforts to abandon FGM is part of a Government strategy, together with UNFPA and UNICEF, that starts with educating the population. The organizations hold workshops throughout the country encouraging people to talk about FGM and refuting its connection to religion.

Mariam's training was developed by Tostan, an NGO with decades of experience leading similar programmes in Senegal. It works at many levels to end FGM – from community dialogues and care services for girls, to policy making and political commitment. UNICEF worked in partnership with Tostan, UNFPA and the Government to bring the programme to Djibouti.

“For many young people,” says Fathia Omar Hassan, UNICEF Child Protection Officer, “this is the first time they may have spoken openly about the complications they have during their menstruation, for example, or that FGM is not a part of Islam.”

Fathia says the biggest challenge is dissociating the practice of FGM from religion, and moving it to the category of a choice. “Once people have the choice, and can weigh it against the health risks, it starts to make sense to them. And through this, the idea that children, girl children, women, have the right to whole and complete bodies.”

The latest data from UNICEF and UNFPA indicate that FGM is still prevalent in Djibouti, with 78% of girls and women subjected to the practice. While there is still a significant amount of work to be done, young women like Mariam represent a promising shift in group belief and behaviour. And public declarations against FGM in 2016 and 2017 helped save nearly 1,000 girls from cutting.

“I cannot bring my baby girl back, but I can keep it from happening to others," says Mariam. "I think now we can use the knowledge gained and stop these harmful traditions.”


Learn more

What you need to know about female genital mutilation

Harmful practices: Female genital mutilation