Sunday, December 7, 2014

Human Rights Defender: Ifrah Ahmed

Ifrah Ahmed is a powerhouse of strength, courage and independence. A human rights defender who has worked to fight the practice of Female Genital Mutilation, Ifrrah has been a very vociferous champon for the rights of women. Having worked before in Ireland, and currently in Somalia, Ifrah hopes to make a difference for women and girls in the African nation, as she did in Ireland. What follows is her story as a human rights defender, in her own words.

The situation of human rights in Somalia remains very poor. Equally, the enjoyment of basic human rights such as food, shelter, health, and education has become elusive for most people in Somalia. It is very hard for women to have and enjoy their rights. People sometimes say that Somalia does not need human rights. This is a very, very sad state of affairs.
As an activist, I have to be very careful about where I go, who I go with, and the people I talk to. I campaign against a practice called Female Genital Mutilation, which is considered a normal thing to do in Somalia per its culture. Things are not easy for me as I protest the practice. Having lived in a Western Country for over eight years, it has become very hard to for people to accept and understand why and what I do. People treat you like you are nobody, and tend to disregard you. Many people have told me not to talk about Women’s rights because they believe that Somali women do not need human rights. People wind up seeing me as a Western girl who has lost sight of her culture, or as a Western girl who has no value for her tradition. This happens doubly so when I tell them I campaign against Female Genital Mutilation. The weather is very hot in Somalia. It is very hard to wear warm clothes. People will spend time being crazy about what you wear and how you dress. I get so sad when I see how women in Somalia are treated. Somehow, there is no respect. I get so upset when I see issues that can be addressed and causes that can be supported, but people are just not willing to help. I had to watch many women who underwent FGM, and they almost died bleeding.  I managed to help them. But the next day, I felt so sad at the fact that so many more of them will go through the same thing.
Every day, when people tell me that I have to be selfish if I want to stay in Somalia, I just reassert my own belief that I can do all my work without being selfish. People talk about tribalism. Coming back from Ireland, where people ask if you are from Dublin or Cork and not what tribe you belong to, I find this a bit of an issue. I always believed that if tribalism was good, we could stay in motherland and not go away to seek refuge. Tribes have indulged in war, and this has separated families so many times. Being a member of a tribe is not important to me because war separated our families. The other thing is that it is very sad to see vulnerable women – they suffer because of a lack of medical care, and because of a lack of education. It is very hard for me to see a fourteen year old girl marrying a man who is aged fifty or more. I come from Ireland, where, when you see a young person, you are happy to talk to them. But here, in Somalia, if you see a young boy, you will run away because you never know what intention he has.
I see women who suffer during childbirth. As much as I want to help them, I couldn’t help much. Sometimes, I cry. I feel too much stress with all of this happening - and I feel like going back to Ireland. But I tell myself that I made this decision to come to Somalia and help women. I will, therefore, stay here and help women and girls. I am already making progress.        
There are a lot of difficulties when you talk to the leaders about women’s issues. They say that there is no issue that women face. They deny these things, and tell me that I should be putting my faith into religion. When you tell them what is wrong and what these issues are, they tell you that it is all normal in Somalia. I have talked to leaders about Internally Displaced persons and they just don’t look at it as an issue, at all.
I see that the solution Somalia needs is for all the Somali people give up on tribalism and become driven towards equality. The issue is that this country has been at war for over 22 years. People should forgive each other, and that will be part of rebuilding the country. I have to find my own way of protecting myself. Nobody will protect you out here. I stay indoors mostly, I don’t even go to market as it is not safe. Since the time I came back to Mogadishu, six women were killed sadly, a young student was killed. All of this is dreadfully shocking because they are targeting only the young and well educated women.
Now, I want to tell you about my past. Having been from Somalia, I moved to Ireland as an asylum seeker. I was asked to take a medical check-up when I reached Ireland, as all asylum seekers are made to. During the examination, they asked me how I got injured in my privates – and that was when I had to tell them about the FGM I experienced. With a male translator to help me, I was uncomfortable talking about it – and I was crying.
Following the medical examination, I went to a hostel where I stayed with other asylum seekers. We shared all our experiences with each other – and many of them spoke about their own instances of FGM, and how difficult it was for them to survive the medical examination. The girls were all crying – I cried, too. One of the girls told us that hers was done with a piece of broken glass – and I was shocked beyond reason. That was when I decided that I would be a fighter for the cause. I wanted to be the voice for women who couldn’t voice their trauma. Since then, I worked as an activist who dealt with policymakers and mainstream organizations. I was also involved in many community projects at the grassroot level that helped effect change. Among the repertoire, I worked with UNICEF, UNHCR, Amnesty International, the Irish refugee Council, and also the Somali Community in Ireland. With time, I became a strong voice for the END FGM campaign in Europe.
Female Genital Mutilation refers to the removal of a part of or all of the external female genitalia for reasons that are not medically rooted. It is often carried out without any medical procedure being followed, either. It is a painful procedure and has a lasting physical and mental impact on the women who are forced to undergo the procedure.
Today, my gratitude goes to Ireland for letting me be integrated into the society, and to learn a lot – to the extent that I can support myself. I believe that I am among the select few that can really make a huge difference not only to myself, but also to the society. I also set up the Ifrah Foundation, the United Youth of Ireland and many other initiatives in Ireland, that included campaigning for the rights of young girls and women, in particular those that undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). I was also among the team that helped push the government of Ireland to formally illegalize FGM in Ireland. Over the past 8 years, I also successfully managed to conduct workshops, awareness campaigns and offered counseling to many organizations and individuals that believed in me, As a result of my work I became an Ambassador for Europe on youth and women rights.
I have always dreamed of supporting my people and my country. I always wanted to come back to Somalia to make valuable contributions to the society. My dreams came through when I met the President of Somalia, H.E. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud on September 15, 2013 in Brussels during the New Deal conference on Somalia. I was able to interview the President on women rights issues, and spoke to him about FGM too. The President welcomed me and asked me to come to Somalia so that my experience, knowledge and commitment can be better utilized in Somalia.
As a result of this, I decided to go to Somalia to see what I can do for my country. I landed at the Mogadishu Airport on March 21, 2014. It was not easy to come back after a life of speed in Europe. I have become an activist and am now advisor to the ministry of women and human rights for the federal government in Somalia. It is hard and not easy. People don’t give opportunities to young people, everyone fears another, and opportunities are very limited for everyone.
I want to see Somalia become a place where everyone has equal opportunities. I want to see the Somalia where civilians get justice. I want to see the Somalia where women are respected and given chances to make a change.