At just six years old, Hibo Wardere experienced a pain so severe that death felt like a better option.
“You can’t even breathe and then before you even start to think ‘what’s happening,’ it’s more cutting and more cutting and more cutting. By the end of it, you just want to die,” she said.
“I was the person that was being butchered, a child that was being butchered, and a child who saw everything: flesh on the floor, her blood everywhere.
“It was a nightmare.”
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a procedure where the genitals are deliberately cut, injured or changed for cultural or religious reasons. There is no medical reason for the procedure.
The mutilation results in physical problems, infections, infertility and above all, psychological trauma.
READ MORE: The true scale of FGM cases in West London
For Hibo, trusting her family was impossible after she was subjected to the most pervasive form of FGM – infibulation.
This involves full removal of the clitoris and labia then the vagina is sealed, leaving only a small opening for urination.
“When the cutting happened, it just spiralled me to a different world where there’s a lot of people around you that love you, taking care of you but you can’t see them because you see pain,” she said.
“Then you just can’t trust them, the trust is so damaged. Even when they call your name, you feel like something bad is going to happen to you.”
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To add to the sense of betrayal, there was an elaborate family celebration before the mutilation, during which she remembers being confused.
She said: “You’re swept off by this amazing party and you’ve got no idea what you’ve done to be honoured for anything like that. I was just a little girl loving these dresses that are very colourful and they were all mine but it wasn’t my birthday.
“When the day itself comes, that’s when you find out what all the celebrations were for. It’s not a day that any girl in the world, on Earth, in the universe, should ever, ever, experience.”
Hibo added: “The minute they pulled my dress up, and my legs were yanked apart, I knew this is wrong. This is wrong. Nobody should be touching any child’s genitals and I just felt something horrific is about to take place. Otherwise, why would they yank my legs apart so hard?”
In Somalia, where Hibo’s family is from, 98% of women and girls aged 15 to 49 have undergone FGM, according to UNICEF, which is the highest prevalence of any country in the world.
Hibo, who has settled down in Waltham, East London, explained that the procedure is designed to remove a woman’s sexual urges, “protecting your virginity” before marriage.
To add to the ordeal, it is common practice for the groom to forcefully consummate the marriage and for their families to check whether the bride’s virginity is intact.
“It’s a humiliating thing to do to a girl who you’ve already scarred when she was a child, and now you’re going to scar her again because people are going to come and check that she was a virgin,” she said.
Hibo fled Somalia in 1989, when she was just 18 years old as a refugee from the civil war.
Arriving in London, Hibo sought medical help despite being unable to speak English, simply gesturing to the area which had caused her a lifetime of pain.
She said: “I have so much to be grateful for. I am today what I am because the UK granted me that. So for me, I’m the lucky one who escaped.”
She called this her “freedom act” and at 18, her life began.
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In the UK, she received a “defibulation” to treat her injuries but buried her psychological pain until she was much older and with a family of her own.
“I was kind of like a hamster on a spinning wheel, that just kept going and I didn’t want to look at myself, I didn’t want to see what I was seeing. I could feel what I was feeling but I just didn’t want to. If I was busy, I didn’t have time to think about that,” she said.
When the eldest of her seven children reached primary school age, Hibo was forced to confront her childhood trauma head-on.
As a volunteer teaching assistant, she was assigned to help a child the school suspected may have experienced FGM.
She credits that child for sparking her recovery:
“It made me look deeply into myself and write about my own experience,” she said.
Hibo was given the chance to speak about her ordeal and, from there, she has built a career as a campaigner against FGM.
She travels across the UK speaking about her experiences, educating school children, universities and institutions on the subject, and she has written a book, Cut, which is now being made into a film.
Hibo was also part of the consultation team on the 2016 UK law changes surrounding FGM and has devoted her life to the cause.
“It’s that nightmare that I live with but I also learned how to use it to bring change about however painful it is to describe it.
“It’s much more than work for me; it’s my life’s work to stop this cruelty happening towards women and girls,” she said.
“My ultimate goal is to know that no girl on Earth grows up having this on her head. I don’t want to see a future Hibo. I want to see future heroes who are amazing, free of this pain, you know, living their life achieving aspirations.
“Wherever you are, I just want you to be happy and not have emotional and psychological scars that you live with on a daily basis.
“For me, it meant using my pain, which has become something of a blessing in disguise to me.
“For me, to be able to talk about that is quite, quite amazing.”
She added: “I survived for a reason. And I think this is the reason.”
Part of that work includes collaborating with other campaigners.
Jesse Clarke, 26, has committed his life to tackling FGM in Tanzania after being made redundant from his recruitment job during the pandemic last year.
The social media influencer first approached Hibo for her help three years ago.
Hibo said: “I kind of didn’t reply because I think I just looked at him and I thought ‘he’s such a young man, I’m just going to give him time to grow’ and boy has he grown.”
In August 2020, Jesse booked a one-way ticket to Malawi where he coached football, taught English, and delivered humanitarian aid for six months.
He said: “Every week of my life, I’ve just been obsessed with the idea of being in Africa and helping people.”
Jesse has 41,000 followers on Instagram, which he uses to spread his anti-FGM message, but, as the practice is fundamental to various cultures’ way of life, he has faced some backlash.
Hibo said: “I saw how many people were attacking him online. They were calling him ‘white Messiah’ and I just thought ‘hang on, he’s just a young man who’s done incredible work for his age and people are attacking him because of his skin colour, are you serious?”
“So I reached out to him and I said to him ‘listen, my darling, there’s a reason when people attack you, that means you’re doing a great job.”
Since then, they have become friends, spreading the message together.
“If you want to end violence against women, it means men, women, young men and older men, everybody has to be a part of it,” said Hibo.
Jesse credits Hibo for teaching him how to effectively tackle FGM and now he is raising money to go to Tanzania indefinitely.
With a small team, he hopes to build safe houses for young girls about to undergo FGM alongside a school so that they do not miss out on an education.
He will use his social media platform and passion for humanity to help as many people as he can:
He said: “I’m not going to be getting a return flight. I’m going to really try and put what I’ve learned about how to stop FGM into practice.”
They say they will both continue to campaign until the practice is eradicated across the globe, no matter how long it takes.
Hibo said: “In order for us to protect the future generation, we must give a helping hand to the generation now and educate them properly on all sorts of violence against women and girls and men and boys too.”
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