In an effort to put an end to female genital mutilation (FGM) in Somalia, the country where the practice is most widespread, Somali Prime Minister Omar Abdirashid Ali Sharmarke joined more than a million others on Wednesday in signing an online petition calling for a ban.
The campaign, titled "Somalia: The world is with you," was launched two weeks ago by Avaaz, an advocacy organization that promotes activism on various issues. After the UN children's agency UNICEF published its latest report on FGM in February, noting that at least 200 million girls and women in 30 countries had experienced the procedure, members of the organization contacted UNICEF in Somalia along with Somali FGM survivor and campaigner Ifrah Ahmed to propose organizing a petition.
Also known as infibulation and female circumcision, FGM involves the ritual removal of parts of a female's genitalia, such as the clitoris or the labia, and then sewing shut or otherwise narrowing the vagina's opening for no medical benefit. In addition to facing health risks such as hemorrhages, bacterial infections, recurring urinary tract infections, and infertility, girls are often cut with knives or razors without the use of anesthetic.
Somalia's provisional constitution, adopted in 2012, includes an article that states: "Female circumcision is a cruel and degrading customary practice, and is tantamount to torture. The circumcision of girls is prohibited." But the East African nation has not passed a comprehensive law against FGM, which has a 95 percent prevalence in Somalia and is performed primarily on girls between the ages of four and 11.
Puntland, a self-declared autonomous region in Somalia's northeast, passed a local ban against FGM in 2014. Last August, Somalia's Ministry of Women Affairs and Human Rights said that it would propose a law banning FGM nationwide, but no such law has yet been implemented.
"I think the ban could really be a key turning point for Somalia, but one of the things our petition calls for in addition to the ban is a massive public education program," said Lisa Vickers, a global campaigner for Avaaz who helped launch the campaign.
Although the UN General Assembly called for the banning of FGM in 2012, the procedure is still widely practiced. Globally, an estimated 125 million girls and women in 29 countries have undergone FGM — 92 million of them in Africa. Another three million are at risk of undergoing the procedure annually.
Mary Wandia, FGM program manager at the human rights organization Equality Now, said that enacting and implementing anti-FGM laws is essential, alongside education, child protection measures, and supporting supervisors.
"We hope that Somalia follows through on banning FGM at a time when momentum is growing on the African continent and globally," Wandia wrote in an email, noting that Somalia "has the highest percentage prevalence in the world and needs to take strong action by enacting and implementing a law immediately."
Watch the VICE News documentary Reversing Female Circumcision: The Cut That Heals
While combating traditions and practices that have have been observed for centuries pose a significant challenge for many African countries, some of the continent's nations have shown that outlawing the procedure is possible. Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan banned the procedure last May as one of his final acts as president. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh announced a federal ban on FGM in November 2015.
The fate of such a ban in Somalia remains unclear, Sharmarke's support could signal a turning point.
"We are hopeful that the prime minister's engagement will help, but we do not yet know what will happen," said Wandia. "We need to ensure the government follows through to ensure that every single girl at risk is protected."
Avaaz campaigners said that when they met with Sharmarke in Rome, he told them that the bill banning FGM would be introduced in Parliament in May. The Ministry for Women and Human Rights has said that the process could take longer than expected, however. The bill is still being drafted, and will need to be approved by the Cabinet.
Vickers said the goal was to get the bill passed before Somali elections scheduled for August.
"With this campaign the momentum is really picking up, and we're going to see what we can do," she said. "The ban may still face some opposition from certain ministers and MPs but we hope it can make it through Parliament before the next elections, so that all the progress made isn't lost when the government changes."