I cannot imagine anything more rewarding that comes to agents of change than when their persistence and commitment to a certain cause bears fruit. This has been the case in pastoralist communities of two districts in the north-eastern region of Ethiopia. On November 11, 2010 the Amibara district of the Afar regional state made a declaration that they were now a district free from FGM/C practices putting into consideration the devastating health impact on Afar women. Following suit, the Awash Fentale district also made a similar announcement that outlawed the practice of FGM/C.
Two years ago the Afar Region Bureau of Women’s Affairs, the Afar Pastoralist Development Association, and the Rohi Weddu Pastoralist Women’s Development Organization launched the UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Program, an intervention program in six districts to tackle the problem of female genital mutilation in Afar. The Afar region has a 92% prevalence rate of FGM practice in Ethiopia, holding it in second place after the Somali Regional state.
Although the communities in these two districts are definitely models for change within the Afar state, nevertheless the practice remains in remote areas with limited follow-up mechanisms at work. Afar women and girls have been and are subjected to one of the worst types of FGM practices, Salot (infibulation), which involves the removal/excision of all or part of the external genitalia followed by stitching close the vagina and only leaving a small opening for menstrual blood. Fatuma Hate, in this excerpt from an article, explains:
“The hole is so cruelly narrow the very act of urinating, which comes so naturally to others, is tantamount to self-torture. And menstruation! Menstruation leaves the victims wondering what unpardonable sin they have committed to deserve such suffering. But if urinating and menstruation were a nightmare, giving birth had all the hallmarks of hell on earth. Many expecting Afar women climb the birth bed and never come down to see the light of day again. The Afaris believe what is between a girl’s legs, the part of the body through which they themselves made their entry into this world, was bad and unclean. Their solution? Just cut everything and throw it away! An uncircumcised girl mean a girl who will never experience the joys of married life. No man would touch her! And no parent was ready to shoulder the humiliation of having a daughter that is treated as an outcast. So, in the Afar society genital mutilation was not a matter of choice, it was a reality of life. No ifs and buts no second opinions; girls find themselves victims of old ladies who thrive at the misery of the young ones.”
The Afar are a patriarchal society, Muslim in religion and a homogenous ethnic group. The worth of a woman is highly placed on whether or not she has undergone FGM/C, which has become a socially enforced traditional practice. “Our men, let alone marrying uncircumcised girl, if they found the vaginal opening a little bit wide by mistake of the circumciser they tell everybody that the girl is open. On her wedding the groom digs a hole in front of their hut to symbolize that she is open and puts a piece of meat on top of the hut to symbolize the girl was exposed to every man (she was making sex before marriage with everybody) as the piece of meat is exposed to all the eagles in the sky. So how could we think not to be circumcised?”
So what is it that led to the two Afar districts declaration of being FGM/C free communities? Definitely not Article 565 of the Ethiopian penal code which criminalizes the practice with a sentence of five to twenty years of imprisonment. While the legal symbolism is important, my evaluation is that the penal code has done little in terms of implementation to be a deterrent.
But it definitely has to do with finding ways to address underlying conservative religious beliefs and unlearning cultural misconceptions that perpetuate a given problem. In the case of the two successful districts, the agents of change engaged with religious and clan leaders who have influence over the attitude and behaviour of community members. Campaigns spearheaded by religious leaders voiced that Islam did not support the practice, enlightening many community members who staunchly believed that it was a religious duty to forgo the practice. Furthermore, the establishment of anti-FGM committees which include a cross section of key players – religious & clan leaders, former circumcisers, elders, judges – has been instrumental in creating awareness and supporting the shift in perspective on the issue of FGM/C.
Personally, I find this approach of cross-sector alliance to be critical in tackling such issues because it brings various parties of interest together as allies of women’s rights movements and gives grassroots ownership, enabling sustainability of such a change in perspective.
Looking forward to the domino effect in other parts of Afar as well as all over Ethiopia where the practice is still rampant!
* Candace: Invincible women of Ethiopia by Alem Desta
* CutFlowers – Female Genital Mutilation and a Biblical Response by Sandy Willcox
* The Role of Men in Ending the impunity of Violence at the Community Level by Asmelash W/Mariam
* Abandoning FGM/C in the Afar Region of Ethiopia – UNFPA News
Love & Light