The United Nations says female genital mutilation which includes all procedures that intentionally alter or injure the female genitalia for non-medical reasons is recognized internationally as a violation of human rights.

Thousands of Somali girls are married off soon after undergoing female genital mutilation Around 98 percent of women and girls in Somalia have undergone some form of FGM or cutting, according to Unicef. The ritual may involve the removal of the labia, clitoris or other parts of genitalia of girls and young women, and is often performed by untrained surgeons in unhygienic conditions. Women commonly suffer debilitating scarring, infections and other medical problems afterward.

As a result, thousands of Somali girls have abandoned their education, experts say. Somalia has one of the world’s lowest enrolment rates for primary-Schools -age children. Only 30 percent of children are in Schools and only 40 percent of those students are girls. The percentage of girls usually drops as they move to higher grades because they undergo FGM and drop out of Schools

“It’s a challenge to educate a girl in Somalia, especially in central and southern Somalia,” said Nazlin Umar Rajput, chairwoman of the National Muslim Council of Kenya and an advocate for the rights of women and minority groups across East Africa. “Many families prefer to marry them off at an early age after they have undergone FGM. The girl child has no space in Somalia because there’s widespread child marriage perpetuated both through culture and religion.”

Muna Omar, a teacher at Istanbul Primary Schools in Somaliland, in north-western Somalia, said a significant number of her 11- to 12-year-old female pupils never return after Schools holidays because most of them undergo female genital mutilation during the break.

“Most of the girls here drop out of Schools at the age of 11 to 12,” said Omar. “When Schools are closed they are taken by their parents and forced to undergo FGM. After the procedure, you will never see them again. They get married to old men and disappear forever.”

The 28-year-old English teacher said female genital mutilation in Somalia is a transition into womanhood. Once a girl is cut, she becomes an adult and can enter into marriage.

Omar said the trend was worrying everyone in the Somali education sector. The number of girls in Schools continues to drop yearly despite the government’s effort to make it possible for more girls to attend.

“We need to do something to ensure that these girls can still access education even after they have married and given birth,” she said. “We will have no girls in classes if the trend continues.”

Somali children return from Schools. Female genital mutilation has denied millions of Somali girls access to education

Fifteen-year-old Hamda Abdullahi is a victim of female genital mutilation whose education stopped after she underwent cutting at the age of 9. She was married soon afterward to a 25-year-old man, she said.

Female genital mutilation is not the only barrier to girls’ education in Somalia. Parents keep girls at home to help them with domestic chores, added Rajput.

The Somali government has joined forces with local and international organizations to stop female genital mutilation and create girl-friendly spaces for study and after Schools clubs, as well as sanitation facilities for girls, to boost their enrolment. Many Somali Schools s don’t have girls’ bathrooms or provide sanitary napkins and other materials for adolescent girls.