By Esete Yeshitla
Erbeti, Sfar, 17 May 2017 – Muna*, like many other girls in Afar region, was subject to type III female genital mutilation and cutting (FGM/C), a removal of the clitoris and the labia minora as well as infibulation: the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. In her first few days of life, she was irreversibly changed; the fate of 98 per cent of females in Afar according to the 2016 Demographic Health Survey.
Years later she began experiencing unending pain. “It is just not how I expected my life would be,” Muna explained. It began at the age of 13 when she had her first period, which quickly became her monthly nightmare. In fact, it was only the beginning of a brutal reality.
At the age of 15, Muna entered into an arranged marriage. Sexual intercourse is another painful experience. “I have never enjoyed sexual intercourse with my husband,” said Muna.
She soon became pregnant. Going to a health facility to give birth is considered taboo in her community; a woman showing her private parts to a man is ‘unacceptable’. Rather, women are to give birth at home. It was no different for Muna.
“I had a really horrible labour and birth experience; I was bleeding and was in dire pain. I felt I was dying,” Muna said. “I truly believe I would have died I had not been taken to the hospital,” she added. Health extension workers in the community came to her house and took her by ambulance to the hospital.
She recovered in the hospital, but that was not the end to her agony. Infections and bleeding continued for weeks. All this led Muna to make up her mind that she would never let her new born daughter go through life like her.
As accustomed in her community, when her daughter was less than one month old, her family started planning for her FGM/C. Muna strongly refused: “I do not want her to go through the same pain. My husband almost made me leave the house, but I was persistent,” said Muna.
Community efforts supported Muna’s tough decision. The Government of Ethiopia, together with UNICEF, implements a multi-sector FGM/C eradication programme, with prevention, protection and care components each respectively managed by the Bureau of Women and Children’s Affairs, the Bureau of Justice and the Regional Health Bureau. Communication committees are one of the interventions, comprised of local religious leaders, clan leaders, health extension workers and police officers. Each fully integrated into their communities, they keep alert for three types of situations: child marriage, instances of FGM/C or a woman whose husband is refusing her to give birth in a health facility. They are reported to the appropriate sector office for further action. The committee also organizes training, supported by UNICEF and the Bureau of Justice, for community members on harmful traditional practices, with an emphasis on FGM/C.
Asrat, a communication committee volunteer, is also a teacher who is passionate about improving the lives of girls and women. “If I were to work in a modern community, I would not be satisfied. Helping to rescue young girls [from FGM/C] is fulfilling,” she says with tears in her eyes, “This issue is often a matter of life and death for them.”
Muna is happy that she saved her daughter from FGM/C and grateful for the education her community is receiving through the FGM/C programme. “Because of the awareness and training, my husband accepted my decision. Otherwise, it would have been impossible,” she said.
Enhancing knowledge to bringing social norm change
Sheikh Mohammed Dersa, the president of the Afar Region Islamic Supreme Council, started to combat FGM/C 25 years ago. He believes that FGM/C is a harmful practice that risks the life of young girls and has no basis in Islamic law but rather is Pharaonic. “When it comes to protection of girls from harmful tradition practices such as FGM/C, our challenge is lack of knowledge,” Sheikh Mohammed said.
Years ago, Sheik Mohammed and other religious and clan leaders who were against FGM/C, were highly resisted by the community and some religious leaders; it was unimaginable to stop the practice. Hence, they started advising people who practice type III FGM/C to reduce the practice to type I, as type I is considered the less painful than the other FGM/C practices (where a girl’s clitoris is ‘only’ cut or removed). The FGM/C practice used to be celebrated with a feast, but nowadays it is done behind curtains, an indication of the progress made.
Through partner collaboration, UNICEF is sensitizing the community gate keepers such as religious and clan leaders to support the effort; engaging the community through regular community dialogue, involvement of adolescent girls in the change process and implementing various sensitization events. Thus, it is believed a critical mass across the community is being built to support the change of social norms and end the practice.
Another facet of eradicating FGM/C is the strengthening and enforcement of legal frameworks, as the Ethiopian Government has passed laws to deter the practice. To this end, consultations to endorse the draft family law, enhancing legal literacy of the community, building the capacity of law enforcement bodies and the establishment and strengthening of community surveillance mechanisms are among the key interventions.
Ending a practice which has been long engrained in a community cannot be done with a single, short-term intervention. With the support of international donors, UNICEF is undertaking this extensive, multisector approach alongside the Government of Ethiopia to ensure that progress continues until no girl and no women are subject to the brutal reality of FGM/C.
*Name has been changed