Take Five with Ifrah Ahmed: Be the Voice, Not the Victim


Ifrah Ahmed is an FGM survivor, activist and UNHCR’s High Profile Supporter. Ifrah was born in Somalia and fled the outbreak of war in 2006 at the age of 17. She escaped traffickers and was granted asylum in Ireland. Since settling in Ireland, she has devoted her life to helping eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Having been a victim of FGM, Ifrah established The Ifrah Foundation, where she advocates for the eradication of FGM globally and in Somalia. In July 2019, the film A Girl from Mogadishu, based on Ifrah’s childhood, premiered at the Edinburgh film festival. 

Ifrah Ahmed, Founder and Executive Director of Ifrah Foundation and Dr Sadiq Syed, Country Program Manager of UN Women Somalia
Ifrah Ahmed, Founder and Executive Director of Ifrah Foundation and Dr Sadiq Syed, Country Program Manager of UN Women Somalia

In October 2021, UN Women Somalia and Ifrah Foundation signed a partnership and are working to eradicate FGM in Somalia. UN Women sat down with Ifrah Ahmed to discuss FGM and the ways it can be eradicated.

You underwent female genital mutilation. How did this experience affect you and how does it impact other girls?

I was eight years old when I underwent circumcision at the hands of a family member who was a licensed doctor. I felt fear, shock and pain…Infection and bleeding have accompanied me for long. I had times when it was hard for me to walk due to severe pelvic and back pain as well swelling on lower part of my body. I had a phobia of getting married. It was also very difficult for me when I was giving birth.

When I moved to Ireland as a refugee, I had doctors support me. I connected with other women who also fled from Somalia and realized that a lot of them went through this and later on understood that this is not a normal practice that should happen to women.

I was lucky to go to Ireland and get medical help and understand the harmful consequences of FGM. But a lot of women and girls in Somalia still think that this is normal, that this is how it should be. Besides health consequences, there are many psychological, emotional and socio-economic consequences for women. We must end these practices and address the gender discrimination and inequality that condone them.

FGM is a violation of the human rights of women and girls. More than 200 million women and girls alive today have been cut, and in Somalia, the prevalence rate of FGM is 98%.

Tell us about your activism and your work?

I started reading and learning more about FGM in Ireland. I started connecting with other refugee women, like myself and started hearing their stories. Some women died of bleeding as a result of FGM, some had serious health consequences… this prompted me to speak up, openly share my story and start advocating to eradicate FGM.

I devoted my life to campaigning against FGM and was I was instrumental in bringing about the 2012 legislation banning the practice in Ireland.

I co-founded Ifrah Foundation in 2010 and since then the Foundation has partnered on a wide variety of projects delivering impactful results with international NGOs and has formed strategic partnerships with governmental agencies on policy and legislation, international media experts and community empowerment and education programs at the grassroots level. I came back to Somalia to share my knowledge and to work with decision makers, elders, traditional leaders, UN agencies and women activists and FGM survivors. My focus over the past four years has been to deliver programs in Somalia intended to eradicate FGM in the country.

I don’t want people to see me as a victim. I want people to see me empowering other women. I want to show people that whatever Somali women have been through, we can be strong and overcome it.

Why do you girls are still experiencing FGM?

FGM is a practice that has been passed from one generation to another generation. Parents, communities, religious leaders, elders still think that this is a tradition that should be kept and continued.

Also, there is no common understanding and awareness of the issue. Some religious leaders are still saying that FGM should be practiced, while others condone it. Men are ashamed to talk about FGM. Mothers, sisters, grandmothers say that if they have been through FGM, their daughter should do the same. It’s the mentality.

Therefore, I have started the “Dear Daughter” campaign together with UNFPA. The campaign is rooted in the fundamental principle of personal empowerment. We ask mothers to pledge to protect their daughters by writing a letter, sharing her story of FGM and empowering their daughters. I believe that the more people learn about FGM, the more they call to end it, and more people will be opposing this practice.

What could be some of the ways to end this practice?

Data on FGM is important for us to be able to assess the current situation, how COVID-19 has exacerbated violence against women, including harmful practices, like FGM. Without credible data it will be very hard to advocate for ending FGM, to gain support for our cause and to show the results of our work.

We need to continue our work on community awareness, continue our dear Daughter campaign, which will also be supported by UN Women, continue sensitizing elders, traditional leaders and parents.

We need to create safer communities for women and girls through transforming harmful social norms like FGM that contribute to sexual violence. We need to create an environment in which survivors can obtain holistic and compassionate support from quality services at the hospitals. We need to implement comprehensive prevention measures.

Tell us about your joint project with UN Women Somalia on ending FGM in Somalia.

As part of the UN Women - Ifrah Foundation partnership, we will organize a series of events including inclusive and regular community-led dialogue sessions to challenge negative norms, support the community to develop and implement community-led action plans against FGM and Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) followed by the proclamation of a declaration of zero tolerance of negative social norms.

A public event will also be organized, where participants will pledge through a campaign not to cut their daughter. This partnership will also help identify and train 60 formal, traditional and religious community leaders to act as leaders in action to reduce FGM and SGBV, and will also identify 60 women, men, youth, girls and boys to act as champions who spearhead advocacy efforts against FGM and SGBV.

The project will also establish linkages with similar ongoing initiatives and promote multi-media advocacy and community outreach activities targeting 25,000 women, men, boys, and girls to address underlying negative social norms and attitudes that condone gender inequality by promoting the role of men and boys as advocates for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women and Girls.