HARGEISA, Somalia (AP) - The 30 Somali teenagers - both boys and girls - all agreed: Female genital mutilation is harmful and the practice should be abandoned.
But what they really meant, they revealed moments later, is that girls should have their genitalia cut - just not sewn shut.
"It's our tradition and if the girls are not subjected to suna(cutting) she will not be accepted for marriage," said Asthma Ibrahim Jabril, 17.
The students, who are part of an afterschool club in Somaliland which the U.N. children's agency helps fund, discuss issues like child labor, early marriage, and female genital mutilation in a classroom with several large hearts scrawled along the walls.
UNICEF is weaving a delicate campaign to educate communities in Somaliland about the harms of female genital mutilation and to get leaders, who are meeting there this month to debate the practice, to denounce it. Child rights advocates in nearly 30 countries are fighting to reduce the number of girls subjected to the cutting of their genitalia, a practice that goes back thousands of years and that Somali practitioners often link to Islamic requirements.
"I want it to be eradicated. It's an old tradition," said Ikram Ismail, a confident 18-year-old in a pink headscarf and a black hijab. "When my mother was young no one could speak about it publicly, but now people understand that it causes a lot of harm so that's why we talk about it."
Female genital mutilation can cause severe bleeding and problems with urination, cysts, infections, infertility and complications with childbirth, including an increased risk of newborn death. More than 125 million girls and women alive today have been cut in 29 African and Middle Eastern countries, the World Health Organization says.
In Somalia, the cultural expectation for girls to undergo genital mutilation comes down to sex and marriage. Men expect to marry a virgin. If a girl has not undergone female genital mutilation, she is considered unclean.