BY STARR BROWN, KATELYN BURNSFIELD AND TREVOR TYLE
Brownkey Abdullahi may seem like your ordinary African refugee, but in reality, she’s a blog posting pioneer in the world’s largest refugee camp.
At 25 years old, Abdullahi proudly hails from her Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya as its first female blogger. Since the blog’s creation in 2013, she has become an activist against the “negative cultural beliefs” affecting young girls both within and outside of her community.
“Most of the issues that affect young people in Dadaab are not captured in the mainstream media,” she said in an interview with the ONE Campaign. “A lot of these young people here are on social media and also don’t follow the mainstream media. They say they don’t listen to much radio or read the newspaper, but they read my blog.”
Perhaps the most prominent of the issues highlighted in Abdullahi’s blog is female genital mutilation (FGM).
FGM is defined as “all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or injury to the female genital organs, for nontherapeutic reasons.” While support of the practice is “highly dependent on ethnic identity,” psychosexual, sociological and cultural, hygiene and aesthetic, religious and socio-economic reasons are also frequently used to justify its continuation.
“Can you imagine what that does to a girl?” Oakland University sophomore Prakhya Chilukuri said of the practice. “The worst thing is they don’t grow up knowing it’s wrong.”
The article also acknowledges the health issues it can cause, such as chronic pain, infections, psychological damage, infertility and complications in childbirth.
“It’s a terrible, terrible thing,” said OU sophomore AuJenee Hirsch. “The sad thing is that it’s widely practiced in Africa, the Middle East and certain parts of India.”
Abdullahi has FGM’s effects firsthand. According to UNICEF, 95 percent of girls in Somalia have experienced FGM. Though she doesn’t identify as Somali, Abdullahi was born to a Somali mother and has lived among Somali refugees for much of her life, making the situation rather close to home.
If the trend for FGM continues, 68 million girls are expected to have been affected by the practice by 2030.
“Although FGM is a big issue globally, in Dadaab it seems normal,” Abdullahi said. “Many of our young girls go through FGM at an early age. I shed tears when I see a young lady under the age of eight undergoing FGM. Even when they go to school, they can’t perform well because of the psychological and health complications.”
According to the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, in countries such as Kenya, where Abdullahi’s refugee camp is located, FGM is viewed as an “initiation ritual” that lasts several months. This can lead to a decline in girls’ school attendance and academic progress. They are also denied access to knowledge on topics such as “health, nutrition [and] legal rights” that may allow them to change the societal roles they hold in their cultures.
“The immediate pain and the inhuman nature of how the operation is done cause shock and the need of medication that may take time,” Abdullahi wrote in a blog post. “This results [in] the loss of the readiness in the girl to learn and a decline in her performance and eventually this may lead to the girl dropping from the school.
In addition to being outspoken against FGM through her blog posts, Abdullahi has become involved in several anti-FGM campaigns. One of her more recent efforts is a GoFundMe fundraiser, which will raise awareness of the importance of female education while also paying for 200 girls in the refugee camp to attend school.
Abdullahi is also an advocate for ending child marriage and often shares stories of girls affected on her blog.
According to Girls Not Brides, child marriage is a “formal marriage or informal union where one or both of the parties are under 18 years of age.” While child marriage happens all over the world, including in the U.S., girls in the Middle East and North Africa under the age of 18 have approximately one-in-five chance of being married off.
On Abdullahi’s blog, she shares the story of Aisha Ahmed, who was married for a $1,500 dowry. Despite having dreams of finishing school and becoming a lawyer to empower women around the globe, her dreams were shattered by money from a wealthy man.
“An awkward calm filled the whole room for a moment before my father signaled mum to break the news to me but she could hardly say a word,” Ahmed said.
After a stressful pregnancy, she endured an equally difficult delivery.
“The labour took quite a long time that she had to undergo a caesarean section,” Abdullahi wrote about Ahmed. “After the operation, her body was so feeble she stayed in bed for three months. Her husband did not support her or provide any care for her. When she complained she was divorced.”
These marriages are often the result of the economic standing of these girls’ families. More often than not, these families are living in poverty and a wealthier man offers money in exchange for their daughter’s hand in marriage, much like the story of Ahmed.
Child marriages are also a way for families to increase social ties with other tribes or clans and enhance their social status.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, girls in some countries can marry as young as 13 to 20, and boys as young as 15 to 21.
Abdullahi also shared the story of Amina Abdullahi, who was forced into marriage at just 14 years old.
“My clan had a conflict with another family so my dad gave me away for marriage in order to settle the conflict,” Amina said.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, child marriage poses many health risks for the girls, such as mental health problems, increased feelings of isolation and depression, increased chances of cervical cancer and STIs and complications during pregnancy and labor.
Amina said she suffered from depression as a result of her marriage and had to be admitted for mental health assessment at a hospital.
NCBI statistics show girls between the ages of 15 and 19 are twice as likely to die during childbirth. The infant mortality rate is also 60 percent higher when the mother is under the age of 18.
These marriages are feeding the cycle of low education, poverty and high fertility. When these girls are pulled out of school, if they’re even in schooling due to the lack of opportunities, they are rarely offered the chance to return back for education, perpetuating the norms of gender inequality in these societies.
One of the most effective ways to reduce child marriage and its many consequences is to ensure young girls stay in school and pursue their education. Doing so may postpone marriage and pregnancy, while also increasing the knowledge of risks that come with sex.
While the fight for equality continues, Abdullahi plans to continue addressing these issues through her work online.
“It’s so liberating for me, being able to share my stories from here,” she said. “It is very difficult to do this work, but I will never stop doing this.”