In Ethiopia, women say no to female genital mutilation
By Hadera Tesfay*
It is late morning in Mere Miti, a village of 300 people in northern Ethiopia's Tigray region. Li'emet Fitsum, 50, is midway through the day's chores. Soon, she will bring lunch to her husband working out in the fields and help him weed and water seedlings for a few hours. Finally, she will gather firewood on her way home to cook, clean up and care for her family. In this region devastated by years of war and recurrent drought, the routine Li'emet follows is like that of most women, who spend from 13 to 18 hours a day at domestic and farm chores.
But there the comparison ends. In one important respect, Li'emet is not typical of women in her region. She has decided not to let her two daughters, aged four and six, undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
Depending on the ethnic group, FGM in Ethiopia ranges from partial to complete excision of the external genitalia, which are then stitched nearly closed in many cases. The ritual is practised on girls between the ages of 7 days and 16 years. It is often performed in unsanitary settings by a community 'specialist' using nothing more than an unclean blade. FGM can cause prolonged bleeding, infection, painful sexual relations throughout life, infertility and death. The practice also increases the risks of childbirth. Though often invoked as a religious duty, FGM is not required by any religion. Sometimes referred to inaccurately as 'circumcision', FGM is performed in many traditional communities worldwide to subdue girls' sexuality and assure their virginity until marriage.
Li'emet's decision not to have her daughters excised runs the risk of ostracizing her from the community. "In Mere Miti," she explains, "female circumcision is considered to be one of the positive traditions passed over from our ancestors. There is a belief that it should be respected and preserved."
A 1985 UNICEF-funded survey carried out by the Ministry of Health in five regions of Ethiopia revealed that about 90 per cent of Ethiopian women had undergone some form of FGM. Today's estimates place the number of affected girls and women at nearly 30 million in Ethiopia and up to 114 million in the world.
Li'emet's decision to forgo FGM is all the more remarkable because she made it without consulting her husband. Moreover, like her six children, Li'emet has never learned to read or write and has little communication with the world outside her village. Since she underwent FGM as a child and had her first daughter excised, it seemed only natural that she would continue the practice.
But what changed her mind was the information about FGM she heard on the radio and in her women's group. Li'emet says that an educational radio series broadcast by the Ministry of Education told of the harmful effects of FGM. She says the same message was repeated in women's meetings organized by the Democratic Women's Association of Tigray.
"All this information affected me," she says, as several other women in her village listen in amazement. "It made me regret letting Timnit, my first daughter, be circumsized. I decided not to let it happen any more."
The radio series, begun in 1995, is just one of the many educational activities sponsored by the National Committee on Traditional Practices in Ethiopia, an organization that is making a major impact on the lives of girls and women. Set up in 1987, the Committee comprises Government officials, NGOs and UN agencies, including UNICEF.
The Committee aims to eradicate harmful traditional practices such as FGM and at the same time promote beneficial practices such as breastfeeding. Its activities form part of a regional umbrella organization, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children, which coordinates the work of national groups in 28 countries where FGM is practised, mainly in Africa.
The Ethiopia Committee sponsors workshops for trainers who work in communities as well as sensitization workshops for 90 to 100 people drawn from the health professions, clergy, traditional birth attendants, women's and youth associations, media and schools. About 1,350 people had attended the sensitization workshops by mid-1996.
Reaching young people is one of the most important goals. In high schools, sensitizations workshops, introduced in 1994, teach boys and girls about FGM and encourage them to express their opinions on the subject. By mid-1996, 38,000 students had participated.
In addition to workshops, the Committee-sponsored radio programmes, begun in 1995, are a relatively inexpensive means to reach communities throughout the nation. The Committee has also produced films in several local languages on FGM, early marriage and other traditional practices. To assist the Committee's work, UNICEF has allocated $300,000 for 1996-1997.
The Government has thrown its weight behind the campaign as well, banning FGM in its Constitution, adopted in 1994. The Constitution prohibits laws, customs and practices that oppress women or cause them mental or physical harm and requires the Government to protect a woman's right to be free of such harm.
Though no survey has been conducted to assess the progress in eliminating FGM and other harmful practices, informal feedback is encouraging.
Meanwhile, in Mere Miti village, Li'emet's decision is creating a stir. Having listened to Li'emet give her reasons, several neighbours have begun to question whether they too should protect their daughters from FGM.
*Hadera Tesfay is a journalist based in Addis Ababa.
Feature No. 00176.ETH, July 1996 ©