FGM survivor Hibo Wardere tells Sarah Jones why she’ll never stop campaigning
It was standing room only at the beautifully restored Carnegie library in Walthamstow High Street for the launch of a book written by the erudite local campaigner, Hibo Wardere.
Set against the Edwardian wood paneling in the upstairs reading room, the charismatic Hibo, resplendent in purple and silver sequins, shared a platform with a local councillor and staunch supporter, Clare Coghill, and spoke frankly and movingly about female genital mutilation (FGM), the barbaric practice she was subjected to as a six-year-old child in her native Somalia.
A beguiling and passionate narrator, Hibo mesmerised the audience, which included anti-FGM campaigners such as Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy, Mayor of Waltham Forest Saima Mahmood, and Janet Fyle MBE.
Saving the graphic detail for her book, Cut – One Woman’s Fight Against FGM in Britain Today, Hibo nonetheless described vividly the pain she felt. “It was as if my whole body was on fire. I screamed for my mother and I screamed for them to stop. I was screaming because I wanted to die.”
The war in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, had given her an unexpected chance to escape and save any future children from FGM. “I would rather die than have my kids subjected to this,” she said. “Leaving was the best thing that could have happened. Britain is my freedom.”
Speaking to me later, following the successful book launch, Hibo said she had settled down with her “great consolation prize,” her husband, Yusuf, whom she met shortly after arriving in London and very quickly became her rock.
“He knows everything about me,” Hibo said. “He’s witnessed my flashbacks. We discussed it from day one. He’s also from Somalia but wholeheartedly agreed that should we have any daughters they would not be cut.”
Teaching herself English with the help of her son’s children’s books, Hibo chanced upon a book on FGM at the local library. It took her a year to translate: “It was a revelation to me. I was told never to talk about it and it was never discussed.
“I realised there were millions of girls affected and wanted to know how they were living, how they were coping.”
Apart from vague references to the frequent infections, part of life for FGM survivors, there was a wall of silence among the women in London’s Somali community. She concentrated on bringing up her seven children, avoiding the persistent rumours about girls going to be cut. “I knew that if I heard about it, it would drag my emotions up and I wasn’t ready to tackle that.”
It wasn’t until Hibo began training to be a teaching assistant at Walthamstow’s Mission Grove Primary School five years ago that she was forced to confront the unpalatable likelihood that a ten-year-old pupil had been sent to Somalia to undergo FGM.
“I was heartbroken,” Hibo said. “She [the pupil] reminded me of my younger self. I believed the UK to be a safe place and my blood was boiling.”
As part of her training, Hibo wrote an essay about abuse, and having learned that the school’s child protection policy didn’t cover it, she knew she would have to write about FGM. Searching the internet and frustrated at failing to find survivor’s stories to use, her husband said: “Why don’t you write about you?”
This unleashed a long, dark and agonising night in which she revisited her six-year-old self: “No-one ever forgets their mutilation.”
The headteacher read Hibo’s essay the following day and soon she was presenting it to more than 120 colleagues with barely a dry eye in the house. “That assignment was the beginning of everything,” said Hibo. “It quickly became more than a vocation.
“I felt driven, empowered, compelled, to tell my story in order to prevent other girls suffering.”
An estimated 200 million women worldwide have undergone this butchery. It is widely practised in north, east and west Africa, with some 98 percent of women in Somalia being cut, as well as parts of the Middle East and Asia. But because of migration, girls in any country can be affected. It is estimated there are 170,000 women and girls in England and Wales affected by FGM, and 63,000 who are at risk.
Soon Hibo was in demand, delivering talks to teachers, midwives, doctors and social workers. She worked on a completely voluntary basis for three years before being chosen for the newly-created government-led education role of FGM mediator, which involves engaging with faith leaders and training professionals in the local area.
Hibo’s joy at surviving her traumatic childhood is palpable. Her wit, warmth and passion have brought her a fast-galloping public profile including articles in The Guardian, Daily Telegraph, The Times, and appearances on BBC Radio 2’s The Jeremy Vine Show, BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour, and ITV’s The Lorraine Show.
Hibo’s message hasn’t always been received well. The UK’s Somali community were initially hostile, but have started to slowly come round, with some women now attending her events and seeking help for the many physical problems that come with FGM.
Crucially more men are learning what is being done “in their name” and they are invariably profoundly shocked. “I love my culture,” said Hibo. “But child abuse has no boundaries and no religion. FGM is a mindset and it’s evil.
“I always say this is child abuse and they need to look at it as that. All our kids are all our responsibility and this is a child protection issue. This country offers beautiful freedom as a woman. So it’s not only about FGM, it’s about empowering women.”
With her older children grown up – her oldest son has just qualified as a doctor – and with husband Yusuf taking on more of the domestic duties, Hibo is able to take her message wider.
“Here in Waltham Forest we are ahead of the UK because I go to every school and teach the students. Knowledge is the best way to eradicate FGM.
“This is my home and there is a reason I came here. The UK is a safe place and I couldn’t bear to have it corrupted. We share how we work in other areas around the country and we have appointments to visit Edmonton and Brighton in coming weeks.
“I have no plans to stop until we have eradicated FGM completely.”
This article was voted Waltham Forest Echo Article of the Year 2016