ETHIOPIA Fighting for the rights of girls

 Maternal Health
 22nd Feb 2008

On the dry and dusty floor of the Ethiopian Rift Valley, the reality of discrimation is starkly apparent. For girls here, it begins at birth.  When a boy is born, there is clapping, shouting and singing, and celebratory shots are fired in the air. But, when a girl is born, there is silence. They are considered unlucky.

Fetching water and firewood, farming, cooking, caring for children, breaking down and rebuilding homes when the nomadic communities move on – women bear the brunt of the workload. They have no choice who they marry, when they marry or divorce. And they rarely go to school.

But these women also carry a silent burden, the result of the practice of female genital cutting (FGC) which almost all girls in the Afar community undergo.  For centuries in Burie village, a poor cattle-herding community in Afar, girls have undergone this rite of passage, usually between the ages of 8 and 12.

“It was thought that a girl was not a woman unless she was cut, everybody thought that, it is why the mothers arranged for it to be done,” told the clan leader, Sheikh Mdu Ahmed.

But this most severe form of the practice - removing all external genitalia, leaving only a small opening for urine and menstruation - can cause serious health and social problems that follow a woman her whole life.  From severe hemorrhaging, infection, long-term difficulties with intercourse and childbirth, even to death. And because cut girls are more likely to marry early, it makes it harder for them to go to school or earn an income.

When CARE began working in Burie, even mentioning the practice was considered taboo.  It was understood to be a religious obligation, so CARE gathered religious leaders from across the region together to study the Koran.

Sheikh Mdu Ahmed told us, ‘Now we know it is not told to us by Sharia law or in the Koran. Some of our neighbours think we are offending our religion. We tell them that is not true.’

Armed with this knowledge and CARE’s help, the villagers had open discussions for the first time and slowly began to understand the real impact on the women of the village. Now people are beginning to take a stand against FGC. Even the village’s circumciser, Basu Mohamed, has renounced the practice and turned her hand instead to ensuring that no more girls in the village are circumcised.

‘Now we are trying to educate the families that this is not necessary. CARE bought us some radios and now we collect people in radio listening groups to hear programmes about this.’

Thanks to CARE’s discussions in the village, 12 year old Halima Mohamed will be the first in her family not be circumcised. Her mother Fatuma is setting an example that she hopes the whole village will follow. And for the first time, Halima is going to school – a temporary structure built by CARE, which will move with the nomads as they migrate to new pasture.  ‘It was the choice of my mother and father, and I am happy because of what they decided for me.’

CARE is working to empower more than 115,000 girls and women like Halima in Afar by eliminating traditional practices like FGC, providing schooling and helping women to generate their own incomes by saving small amounts of money and starting small businesses.

Ending discrimination is a slow process, but the words of leader Sheikh Mdu Ahmed bring much hope for the next generation of girls in this village, “You must understand, I will not circumcise my daughters any more, and I will tell my sons they should not worry about marrying such a woman.”

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