In a school hidden from view in the walled city of Harar, something revolutionary is happening. Girls and boys are taking a stand against the devastating practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Led by ten-year-old Saada*
“I THOUGHT I WOULD LOSE HER”
“My friend came to me and said she was getting circumcised,” says Saada*, a charismatic ten-year-old who holds our attention with ease – whether she’s singing unprompted or telling a story that’s deadly serious: “I was so worried for her. I thought I would lose her because she would die.”
Saada (pictured above) lives in the Somali Region of Ethiopia. She is confident and wise beyond her years: when she was only seven years old, she helped stop a friend undergoing FGM. On International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, we can be inspired by Saada.
“Her family didn’t know how bad it was,” she explains. “I told her all the stories – if a girl is mutilated, she will lose too much blood, she might get infected and she might have problems when she gives birth.”
When the friend’s family asked their daughter where she had heard this, the young girl told them it was from Saada. “Her family came to my house and we persuaded them not to do it,” she says. “If she had died, I would have missed her so much.”
“I am so happy to teach my friends and I feel bad if some of them don’t understand the bad side of FGM,” she tells us. “I will keep telling people FGM is bad until my twenties if it hasn’t stopped. I will keep on changing people’s minds. I will never stop. I am not alone…”
“I’VE NEVER BEEN AFRAID”
“I have never been afraid,” Saada says. “Never in my life.” She learned about the dangers of FGM at her school’s girls’ club – run with the support of Save the Children. Girls and boys come together once a week to learn about the dangerous realities of FGM and other issues girls and women face, such as child marriage.
After school one day, Saada led us through the narrow, winding streets of her atmospheric, ancient city – past colourful painted walls and enticing doorways that lead to people’s homes. The traditional Harari building is set around a courtyard and one of them belongs to Saada’s family. Her older sister was in the girls’ club at the same school, and the whole family are against the practice of FGM. They are proud of their vocal young activist.
“The girls’ club has made a big change in the community,” says Saada’s mum Ambra*, 35. “It is changing people’s minds, so they become against bad traditions like FGM.
“After Saada joined the girls’ club in grade five, every day she brought home new ideas and taught us. We had this experience when my elder daughter joined the same girls’ club. When she heard something new, she came home and spoke about it – and that gave us the chance to speak as a family.”
LEARNING FROM THE DRAMA
As well as meeting and talking about their rights, the children regularly put on plays about FGM. We saw the whole school turn out to watch a show, with children packed into the courtyard playground and hanging over the railings to get the best view. The performance didn’t pull its punches, from brutal depictions of FGM, through to a full court case showing a prosecution for the illegal procedure.
“Drama is not only for entertainment, it spreads a message and teaches the audience,” says Nura*, 14, “After watching our play, people will go and tell their family the bad side of FGM and it will have a gradual impact – slowly we will teach them and make changes in our families. When I’m performing the FGM play I’m learning from the drama.”
“WE BOYS STAND WITH THE GIRLS”
Crucially, the club is not just for girls. One member, Nadir*, 15 (above), is passionate about protecting his female friends and relatives.
“We boys stand with the girls to make sure they’re protected and to let them know we support them against any type of violence against them,” he says. “We tell students in school not to practise FGM.” This even includes broadcasting anti-FGM messages on the school megaphone during break time.
“An equal society is possible if boys and men support girls and women,” he adds. “If we take the girls’ burden as our own, equality is possible.”
FIGHTING ABOUT FGM
For one student, 12-year-old Salma*, the lessons she learnt in the classroom four years ago had dramatic results on her own life.
“I started to know at grade two, from my teachers, that FGM is bad,” she tells us. “From that day on I started to fight with friends and family about FGM.
“When I told my family at home about the bad side of mutilation, first they resisted, then they listened to me and allowed me to not be mutilated. They said, ‘If it’s what you want, let it be. I have no words to express how happy I felt.”
Sadly it’s too late to protect so many girls. Jamila*, 14, underwent FGM when she was just three. She’s now hoping to protect her sisters it, and says, “I will keep trying to change how adults behave, even if they do not hear my voice.”
The club goes further than tackling FGM too – it fosters a progressive attitude in which anything seems possible. The girls we spent time with have big dreams. There’s Ayda*, who poses with the dynamism of her hero Jean-Claude Van Damme. She dreams of taking her passion for taekwondo and karate professional.
Salma*, 12, wants to become a doctor and 19-year-old Nawal* hopes to become a pilot, while Yadira*, 11, wants to be an architect. Eleven-year-old Aliya*, a passionate member of the school’s child parliament, is already championing the value of education. Many others speak of helping to better their country, working in politics regionally and even nationally. By encouraging these children to speak out against injustice, this school is helping to change the attitudes of a generation, and hopefully, nurture the leaders of the future.
For more, watch this two-minute film about Saada and her friends.
*Names have been changed to protect identities