Zero tolerance to female genital mutilation

Text Donald Boström

Women in seven of the 32 Afar region’s districts have started to reassert the right to their own bodies and thereby breake an ancient tradition when they introduced zero tolerance to female genital mutilation (fgm).

In Gewane district of Afar region about twenty women were sitting on the mud floor in front of us ready to discuss about the project that has given them freedom.  They came from a far distance. Some of the women have walked for hours to talk about the project that has changed their lives. 

Female genital mutilation (fgm) is a tradition which is believed to have its roots in the World for several thousand years. Whilst more than two million girls undergo female genital mutilation a year across the globe; in Ethiopia it is believed that 75 perent of girls in the country are victims of female genital mutilation. Some of them explain this as a tradition rooted in religion - in particular with Islam. It is however, impossible to find any support for such edicts in any religion. In Ethiopia the tradition of fgm is also exercised by Catholic, Protestant, Copts, Falasha (an ancient Jewish group), and others.

The reasons that were given during the discussions with the people appear to show that it is a way for men to control women. 

The most important reason given is that female sexuality cannot be controlled and should therefore be reduced. It is considered important for the woman to be a virgin until she marries and thereafter be completely faithful to her husband.

The other reason is that people are obliged to follow the traditions handed down by the forefathers. In the Afar region the type of female circumcision practised is called infibulation, (Salot) in the local language. This means that the clitoris and inner labia are cut off as well as part of the outer labia. Only a small opening is left for urine and menstrual blood. The circumcision is usually carried out when the baby is between seven and forty days old. The latest it can be performed is at 13 years old as girls are married off when they are 15 years old.

Fathuma Ali, 40 years old, works as a circumciser and Traditional Birth Attendant. She has four children of her own. One of the girls has been circumcised. 

”We usually carry out circumcision within twenty four hours after the birth”. says Fathuma. It is a tradition that has been passed down and it still continues. We use a knife called a gili. After these discussions I understand the negative aspects of female circumcision. I completely agree with the others that it should stop”. she says. She is not the only tba who believes on the need for stopping fgm.  As the situation stands today more than 800 other Traditional Birth Assistants have decided to stop circumcising girls. They have saved no fewer than 15,000 girls from the negative consequences of circumcision. 

Momina, 13 years old, is one of the girls who was saved from circumcision.

“I am really glad that I have avoided circumcision. I have many school friends who have been circumcised and who have health problems. When these matters are discussed, I understand what is going on and I am pleased that it has been stopped”.

”When we started discussing this subject in the village we agreed that there are no advantages at all”. says Momina Ali, 22 years, from Gewane,”.On the contrary there are a great many serious disadvantages”.

For many girls, circumcision means life-long suffering that influences most areas of their lives. Infections and pain prevent them from attending school. Generally it has a negative effect o their lives. For many girls a simple task such as urinating is a problem, hence they need to use a feather so that they can pass urine. Menstruation causes huge problems. Sexual intercourse is difficult and painful. The risks when giving birth are increased. Before and after delivery the women must be cut open and sewn up again. 

”We always known this, but it has taken hundreds of years for us to discuss this issu”. says Momina.”.But during the course of this project we have talked through the subject and finally decided to stop it”.

Thirty-year-old Aboya Mohammed, who has three children, tells us her story:

“I was only one day old when I was cut, so naturally I remember nothing of the violent procedure itself. I was cut in a certain way called infibulation. After they have cut around the genital organs the legs are bound together for seven days so that the wounds will heal in a particular way. One problem has been all the infections I have had during menstruation. It was extremely painful when I gave birth to my babies. I am really happy that this has now stopped. That is why I have waited here the entire day to take part and tell you about it”.

How does one change strong traditions that have been held for twenty centuries?  In the Afar region the answer is to create trust.

The whole move to stop fgm started in Gewane when a representative from Rohi Wedu Pastoral Women Development Organization, supported by sida/uewca, began the discussion. The speaker herself was from Afar so the women trusted her straight away. This meant that they accepted her argument and started to plan a programme to bring about an end to Female Genital Mutilation. Rohi Weddu used the traditional Afar method of discussing important matters with the community. They thought that the tribal system and the religious structure were suitable even for this type of dialogue. One of the most important parts of the strategy was to include people with status and influence.  Committees and teams travelled to the villages to persuade the population of the advisability of giving up female circumcision. Step by step the tribal leaders, religious leaders and senior officials on the district council agreed with the project and, as anticipated, the idea spread among the rest of the population.

Meanwhile there was a heated discussion:”.no one will want to marry a woman who has not followed tradition and has not been circumcised”. 

This prompted the people in the villages to start discussing a wide variety of important related subjects: fgm and religion, fgm and its relation to health, fgm and change, how one facilitates dialogue in a community on important issues, the registration of new-born girls and the reporting of activities associated with circumcision.

The strategy proved successful. The concept of putting a stop to female circumcision began slowly but surely to take root. Religious leaders distanced themselves from the association of Islam with female circumcision. The religious leaders justified reason for the inhabitants of Afar to continue this practice immediately ceased to exist. Instead they quote the line in the Qur’an where it states:”.no one shall injure another person’s body”. There then followed an official declaration from the district leaders in Gewane, Elidear, Burimodaytu, Argoba, Amibara, Awash Fentale, Yallo, Dubti and Aysayta. ‘Female circumcision must stop.’ Despite that, there are still examples of women and circumcisers who continued this inhumane practice. 

In Amibara district a circumciser was sentenced to two months’ imprisonment. In this way they demonstrated clearly the introduction of zero tolerance to fgm.

It did not take long before visible signs of improved health were apparent in the young girls who had not been circumcised and there were fewer cases of maternal and child mortality.

The atmosphere in the room is cheerful. The women talked freely, relaxed and accept the idea of zero tolerance. It is easy to see their relief. They have finally put a stop to a tradition that had caused such suffering to so many women for centuries. They all laughed aloud when Aboya, 30, glances sneeringly at the men.

“The men have no say in it. It is our right to decide whether or not we want to be circumcised. It is we who should decide.  There is now total consensus in the village about the negative aspects and we must stop”. says Aboya.

Today eighty percent of the inhabitants in seven districts of Afar have signed up to zero tolerance and more are signing up every day. The present strategy is to transfer the progress to all districts and after that to the rest of the country. They are a living proof that their health has improved and more women survived. But this is not all. A man, who has to cause his wife pain and suffering every time they have intercourse, naturally stops doing it. The result is that the man goes to other women.

”The revolution that we women have begun also means that the men stay at home with their wives”. says Aboya.

”We now have a sex life where both women’s and men’s needs can be met”. says Momina Ali.

Publicerad i Boken Poverty Reduction 2017

Donald Boströmwomen