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Ethiopia remains of the African countries with the highest rate of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Ethiopian activist Tesfaye Melaku Aberra tells Valentina Mmaka about the practice and his fight against it.


Ethiopia has more than 80 languages and 200 ethnic groups which makes the country a diverse melting pot of cultures and traditions with differing concepts of identity. One of the traditional practices that hold up is Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The national rate is approximately 74% though, but due to the mentioned diversity of cultures, in some regions, the rate can create a gap between 27% and 91%.

Type I, II and III are practiced depending on the area and the age at which FGM is performed. 52% undergo FGM before the age of 1 making it performed earlier in the North than in the South of Ethiopia, where the practice is mainly associated with marriage. Also the justifications differs from region to region and from culture to culture: some people mark it as part of their cultural identity, others as a religious demand to ensure chastity and prevent rape.

In 2009 the National Service Radio of Ethiopia (NSRE), e FM Addis, started airing the 226th episode of the serial Drama Sibrat, which means trauma. The drama, in Ahmaric, was aired twice a week till 2010 addressing the dangers of FGM, making an impact in many communities.

Though there is no specific law addressing FGM as a form of abuse, the Penal Code, which was ratified in 2005, criminalizes the practice. Even though the law has been enforced, few cases have been reported. The main problem as activist Tesfaye Aberra said, is that FGM needs to be addressed properly by the Government through health, agricultural and educational policies.

VALENTINA MMAKA : Tesfaye, would you like to share a bit of your background?

TA: I was born in Dessie (400 km north of Addis Ababa) in 1979. There, I completed my secondary education. In high school, I began to engage in academic and vocational training sections and was actively involved in different extra-curricular activities, including organizing and managing in school gender clubs.

When I joined the Alemaya University Department of Agricultural Extension and Communication, I was also involved in some outside activities. From the beginning, I was deeply sorrowed by the inequality of women in my community, so after graduating I decided to work with organizations that are involved in issues related to women in development. This helped me to become an activist for gender equity and equality. Now I am a development activist specifically on women and children rights. I founded a local NGO called ‘Light Ethiopia’ that works for women and girls empowerment. FGM and Early, Child and Forced Marriage ECFM are the main intervention/focus areas of the organization.

VM: Talk about your activism on girls and women’s rights in your country.

TA: I started my gender and women rights activism at high school. At that time, I tried to establish a Gender Club for boys only. In the club, I did trainings and presentations on the inequality of men and women in Ethiopia. Since then I have been focusing on the unequal system between boys and girls in my country. During college time, I had the opportunity to organize different campaigns to create public awareness to fight against gender inequality.

Later, I joined a national NGO working on Women in Development/Gender and Development (WID/GAD). Here I designed women- focused development projects aimed to reach marginalized women and girls. I’m currently training both boys and girls in addressing women issues. I organize different events in sport and culture and provide training for rural based Health Extension Workers, youth and teachers alike. The goal is to empower girls and youths to say no to early-, child and forced marriage and FGM in their community.

Through my current organization, Light Ethiopia, I am working on empowering young girls, and capacitating the youth to engage in social action projects related to ECFM and FGM to stand against these practices.

Since we gain lots of experience in project organization, Light Ethiopia wants to develop an advocacy toolkit to end FGM and ECFM in Ethiopia. I plann to use artists, thr media and influential people in our community to fight FGM and ECFM. In addition, I will strengthen my capacity- building programs related to end FGM/ECFM by training people under government structures such as rural health extension workers, teachers at rural primary schools, agricultural extension workers and other grassroots administrators and community leaders.

VM: Ethiopia has one of the highest rate of FGM in the whole African continent, even though the statistics vary according to regions, Afar Region is 91% while Gambela (western Ethiopia) is 27% with a 74% national rate. Can you explain the reasons of this disparity?

TA: Although it is one nation, Ethiopia has more than 80 languages and around 200 ethnic groups. Some cultures like some parts of Gojam, in Amhara regional state don’t practice FGM at all. Like our cultural disparity, practices of FGM also vary, depending on region and cultural community. Even within one region, Amhara regional state for instance, some parts of Gojam don’t practice FGM, while around 78% of the community practices it in Wollo and Gonder. To be clear, though, it is important to note that the disparity is not due to anti FGM interventions or engagement of governmental and non-governmental institutions. In almost all region the anti FGM movement has remained the same size.

VM: Ethiopia outlawed FGM in 2004 but it is still widely practiced. What is the main justification for it in your country?

TA: As you said before, in Ethiopia 74% of women have undergone female circumcision at national level. The cause for this is, however, not, that we don’t have regulating laws. In Ethiopia the legal age for marriage is 18 years, but law enforcement is weak. The minimum age for consensual sex is 18 years, but 21.6% of girls aged 15-19 years have are married.

In the 1960 Penal Code, there was a prohibition against torture and cutting off any body parts. Some interpreted this provision as a way of prohibiting FGM. Articles 16 and 35 of the 1995 Constitution protect women from bodily harm and from harmful customary practices. A new Criminal Code passed in 2005, specifically makes FGM a crime and aligns domestic law with the rights- orientated Constitution.

Article 568 and 569 contain provisions on circumcision (meaning, in this context, Types I and II FGM and Type III infibulations respectively). In Article 568, the penalty for Type I or II FGM ranges from 3 months’ to 3 years’ imprisonment and a fine of no less than Birr500 – 10,000 (approximately US$ 27 – 528) or both imprisonment and fine. Article 569 focuses on Type III infibulations and provides that, ‘Anyone if engaged in stitching the genital part of a woman shall be punished by rigorous prison term of 3 to 5 years. If the practice causes physical or health injury notwithstanding the severe punishment provided in the Penal Code, the penalty will be prison term of 5 to 10 years.

Although the law provides for persecution of perpetrators of FGM, in reality, traditional cutters continue practicing FGM supported by their cultural leaders. This happens because:

• Most people in rural areas do not see the police and courts as the place to go to resolve the problem faced within the community.
• Awareness of the law is very poor, even among law enforcement agencies
• Reluctance by some law enforcement officials to enforce fully the laws
• FGM happens in secret where enforcement action is stronger
• restricted involvement of civil societies
• Limited capacity of civil society in Ethiopia to perform anti-FGM/C awareness creating events
• Low involvements of media, artists and writers in social affairs in Ethiopia
• Spiritual and cultural taboos that the community believes on FGM

VM: What is the position of the government related to the practice in the country?

TA: The Ethiopian government has ensured that ‘a solid policy and a programmatic basis has been laid’, with HTPs being included in all the major policy and legal plans across the country, including policies on women, health, education and on social policy. Other measures include the establishment of a ministry of Women’s Affairs 2005, an inter-ministerial body set up to combat violence against women, including HTPs, and the identification of FGM by the Women’s Affairs Office as one of its major goals in its five year plan (PASDEP). In 2011 the ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan set five year targets to reduce FGM to 0.7% by 2014/15. At the Girl’s Summit in London, the Ethiopian Government represented by his Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, showed his position towards FGM by saying: “Our approach puts girls at the heart of our commitment, working closely with them, their families and communities, to end these practices for good and break the cycle of harmful traditional practices.” He said that Ethiopia would achieve its goal by 2025 through a strategic, multi-sectoral approach and highlighted four areas where the government has promised to take action:

1. Through incorporating relevant indicators in the National Plan and the National Data Collection Mechanisms including the 2015 Demographic and Health Survey to measure the situation of FGM and Child, Early and Forced Marriage (CEFM) and to establish a clear bench mark
2. Through enhancing the coordination and effectiveness of the National Alliance to End Child Marriage and the National Network to End FGM by engaging different actors with key expertise
3. Through strong, accountable mechanisms for effective law enforcement
4. And, through an increase of 10% in financial resources to eliminate FGM and CEFM (Child Early and Forced Marriage) from the existing budget.

Therefore, in conclusion, the Ethiopian government, in my opinion, stands in a good position to end FGM in Ethiopia theoretically. But in practice there is limited and small intervention working related to awareness creation among the community about the effects of FGM.

VM: I guess FGM is a taboo issue in Ethiopia like in most of the FGM practicing countries, so it is not so much outspoken (tell me if things have changed). Are media engaged in spreading information country wide?

TA: Ethiopia is a patriarchal society and there are moral and cultural restrictions on women and their behavior. As in other African countries, sex and sexuality are taboo subjects in Ethiopian culture including FGM. A woman who discusses sexuality openly could be labeled as ‘immoral’ or ‘loose’. Though domestic violence and discrimination of women are endemic in Ethiopia, cases of women and girls who have experienced gender based violence are under-reported due to ‘cultural acceptance, shame, fear or victim’s ignorance of legal protections. Despite some progress on prevention, there is a lot left to do. There is little change in rural areas and major changes in urban areas. These cultural taboos still exist within our community especially in the rural parts of the country. There is no continuous awareness creation program about the impacts of FGM whether through government or private Media. Media engage in news only if there are some events and activities performed by other agencies. They try to engage if there is a sponsor or air time purchasing from NGOs. Even government ministries have no continuous printed or electronic media program to transmit the message to the public to end the problem in the country.

VM: I remember some years ago the Ethiopian Radio broadcasted the drama Sibrat (which means trauma) to address the issue of FGM providing counseling and helping people to end this practice. Do you believe these kind of initiatives could help to raise more awareness?

TA: Sure, I strongly believe that. As you know, media has a magical power to change the attitude of the community within short period. So, this initiative can help us to create more awareness about FGM in Ethiopia. There are opportunities to transmit our message through radio, or television in our country. In rural Ethiopia there’s at least one radio every three families. In addition there are household’s level electric power distribution programs in almost all rural villages in different regional states.

Therefore, if we re-start such types of initiation (like Sibrat) in Ethiopia, there will be more opportunities to address many farmers earlier. What I recommend, in this context, is to prepare the initiatives in different languages and transmit them on local and community radios to the national radio and television. (Now almost all regions have its own television and radio programs in their own language)

VM: During the last year, in some African countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia, male activists fighting FGM have appeared alongside women. According to you what made men suddenly concerned about FGM? Do men really still demand FGM from their women?

TA: Men can play an important role to end FGM in developing countries. As we all know in patriarchal communities men at household level can influence their family to say agree or disagree with practices and believes.Therefore, if we involve men, specifically husbands to create awareness about the negative consequence of FGM, they can stop this within their families. Furthermore, in developing countries most of the decision makers such as religious leaders, doctors, teachers and politicians are men. They have the potential to act as change agents in this process but they need to become more involved.

In some parts of the Ethiopia, people believe that FGM is practiced because of spiritual order from their creature. But it is not true, religious leaders can play the role of preaching the community as this is not God’s demand. Moreover, men can influence their wives, sisters and mothers by teaching them that FGM is not a good practice for women. As we all know, ‘FGM violates a woman’s personal freedom’. In my opinion men are equally affected by FGM as women are. Because girls and women are traumatized due to the practice, men can talk on behalf of them to the public about the problem.

In my community, especially among the youth, men don’t demand FGM of their women, but they are forced to practice it because of cultural, religious and clan leaders. Therefore, it is expected to build their capacity to say no to FGM.

In Ethiopia, in the Amhara regional State a few parts of the region are free from FGM and most men love women from this area for their sexual statisfaction. This is one of the indicator for men who can’t demand FGM from their women. But as we have discussed above, it is taboo to speak out and discuss with the community about their needs and express their ideas to the public.

VM: We know that FGM is practiced by women on women, even though it is a patriarchal idea. As a man in modern Ethiopia, what is the perception of FGM among men?

TA: Some studies showed that almost all men in Afar, Somali, Amhara, Oromia and Tigray regional states of Ethiopia support the continuation of FGM in one form or another, admitting that the tradition of leaving girls untouched has no room in their culture. In Muslim communities however, they support any type of cut, they believe this is one of the religious requirement.

Many men in Ethiopia are not allowed to see untouched girls, they believe that girls must be circumcised during their adolescent period, reducing female sexual hyperactivity. In our culture, there are few uncircumcised girls in the new generation.

Men in the rural parts of the country do not support the total abandonment of FGM. They consider it as harmless.

Different justifications are put forward for the defense of girls’ circumcision. Those who are sympathetic to religion (Muslim Community)forwarded totally different arguments for the continuation of the practice than those who were supportive.

VM: How could the involvement of men contribute in the decline of the practice in Ethiopian society?

TA: Men should believe in their presence to contribute to the decline of the practice in Ethiopia. As I have mentioned earlier, in our patriarchal community men can stop FGM with one word "No" in their family. In addition to that, I’d like to say that in Ethiopia almost 100% of cultural and religious leaders are men. So they can mainstream the issues of FGM in their preaching. Boys can also play a major role in training girls in their schools. Men can say: "I will not marry circumcised women."

VM: Many Ethiopian immigrants continue practicing FGM also in the diaspora, returning home when the cutting season comes or they do it illegally in their new countries. Are you aware of any Ethiopian woman who applied for asylum on the basis of FGM (following the procedure indicated by the UNHCR) and succeeded?

TA: Of course there are some information dispatched to the community regarding the diasporas returning home to cut their daughters, but I haven't got an opportunity to talk with them simply because currently in Ethiopia this practice is still done secretly.

VM: You work with Light Ethiopia, an organization which aims to educate and empower girls. You’ve been supported by Western NGOs, which is what happens in most of the countries where FGM is practiced. What would you like to say to the investors, institutions, government of your country to take a stand and support local grassroots organization in fighting social injustices?

TA: It is difficult to wish such types of support from the investors, institutions and the governments in most developing countries. They don’t believe in the elimination of FGM as a priority issue in the country. They lack proper intervention in the development activities and rely on NGOs as financial institutions. However, I would like to say to them to consider financial, technical and logistical support for grassroots organization fighting social injustice in our country. Working together is an excellent way to end injustice and poor governance in the community whether it comes from our taboos or political institutions.

VM: What is the best strategy to tackle FGM in Ethiopia and how much information and education have to be implemented?

TA: In my opinion, investing in girls education is the basic and best strategy to stop the spread of FGM, at least in the next generation. If we educate girls, we educate the future adults, mothers and wives. We have the capability to ensure that educated families won’t cut their girls anymore in the coming generation. Another basic strategy to stop FGM is to train health extension workers, agricultural extension workers and teachers to mainstream the issues of FGM in their day to day activities. Due to the national health, agricultural and educational policy of the country, one Kebele (the lowest administrative structure of the nation) has at least three health extension workers, three agricultural extension workers and ten teachers. Therefore, if we train them to do so they have a grassroots structure to discuss the issue with the local people. In addition to that, using media such as local community radio, regional radio and television and national radio and television to transmit the message to the whole people with reasonable cost is also really basic strategy to create awareness among the community.

Female circumcision is one of the major means of income for the traditional cutter in most parts of the country in Ethiopia. Availing some Income Generating Activity for such cutters is the other best strategy to contribute to ending FGM in one generation.

* Valentina Mmaka is a writer and activist educator. Her newest book about FGM, The Cut. Global Voices for Change. Breaking Silence on FGM (Edizioni dell’Arco 2015) will be released soon.

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