25 March 2011

Can FGM change in a generation?

How do you answer these questions: Can FGM end in a generation – after 1000 years of embedded practice? What does it take to campaign for 10 years to change a traditional practice? Can lessons in Ethiopia be transferred elsewhere? 

During my January trip to Ethiopia, I learnt that the North East Afar region is one of the hottest, driest places on earth. Accordingly to the 2005 Health Survey, 74% of women have the severest (Type III) FGM, from ages 7-9 years old. This leads to pain and trauma, with tearing and obstruction common during intercourse or labour.

Two weeks after arriving home, I learnt that two Northern Ethiopian districts have outlawed FGM. Head of Women’s Affairs says ‘We are very happy to declare the abandonment of this horrible act’. Fatuma Ali continues ‘This is like the rebirth of Afar Pastoralist women’.

How do changes like this happen? The Afar way of life poses programming challenges, as pastoralists cannot easily attend community dialogue sessions to learn why FGM should be abandoned. I have been in dialogue with Ato Asmelash Woldermariam, the Executive Director of Rohi Weddu, who states the number of uncut girls has now reached 4000. She says this is unique in a region where all must be cut. Girls are pressurised to marry from 15 to avoid pre-marital sex or rape. This often ends a girl’s education.

One lady who has become an Afar community role model is Dohra Ali. She smiles broadly as she explains that her daughter asked a few years ago ‘Is there a place I can go in the world where FGM is not practised?’. As a circumciser, Dohra was affronted. Yet since 2000, she has learned that FGM is not an Islamic requirement.

It has taken 10 years for Afar and Awash districts to abandon FGM, under the influence of clan leaders, local government and former circumcisers such as Dohra. A group of Awash girls said they were proud to be uncut – a statement which would have been taboo a few years ago.

My meetings with the Inter African Committee and their Ethiopian member EGLDAM left me aware of the extent of FGM in Ethiopia. In Afar and six other regions, FGM is at 8 days old. Four regions practice it under 10 years, six at later puberty and seven areas around marriage.

By religion, 80% are Muslim and 15-70% of all other faiths (traditional; Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox) practice FGM. Reasons include tradition, avoiding shame/ostracisation, control of women and aesthetics.

Waris Dirie, the Somali supermodel and UN Advocate for abolition of FGM says ‘It has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It’s a torture and crime which needs to be fought against. Laws are important but only effective if people know them. I’m deeply convinced that information and education are out strongest weapons to fight FGM’.

In Afar, Dohra has helped create the community her daughter once dreamed of – and now her five daughters are safe from the health risks resulting from FGM, and are part of the first Afar generation of girls to grow up free from harm.