By Esete Yeshitla
AYSAITA, AFAR, 18 May 2017 –Even with her sun-stricken skin and tired eyes, one can feel the vibrancy and strong personality of Zahara Ali. Zahara is a volunteer social worker who dedicates herself to helping her community without any compensation. With some broken Amharic mixed with a translated Afari language and a smile on her face, she starts to explain how she ended up serving her community.
“My first daughter was lucky not to get mutilated,” explains Zahara, “I was sensitized about FGM/C at that time.” However, her second daughter was cut. “I was heavily pressured by family and neighbours.”
Zahara allowed the traditional cut to be done on her daughter at seven days old, not knowing that it would end up being the most ‘incorrect and terrible procedure’. Facing complications and enduring pain, her daughter had to be brought to Aysaita Primary Hospital for corrective surgery.
After that experience, Zahara became much stronger and committed to teach others about the harm of FGM/C. When a community FGM/C sensitization programme was started in her town, some volunteers were deterred due to the lack of compensation, but for Zahara, that did not matter. “After going through the pain with my second daughter, I decided to work as the hospital’s social worker. I am convinced that I have to help mothers with FGM/C complications and make a difference in people lives,” says Zahara.
“The hospital contacts Zahara to sensitize the community,” says Dr. Hatesy Abraha, the gynaecologist at Aysaita Primary Hospital who has been hired through UNICEF’s FGM/C programme. He adds, “It is sort of demand and supply. The hospital provides treatment while utilizing people like Zahara to sensitize and convince mothers. Otherwise, it is not common for mothers in the Afar region to go to the hospital.”
Zahara was trained on FGM/C by the community sensitization programme, which was launched by UNICEF and the Regional Health Bureau. She then goes into her community with volunteers like her to teach about the symptoms of FGM/C complications. That is when women with FGM/C complications and other gynaecological needs seek treatment from the hospital. Zahara brings in mothers who have medical cases such as fistula or urinary complications. She advices pregnant women to have antenatal care and institutional delivery.
While visiting the hospital with Dr. Hatesy, we met patients who had undergone such corrective procedures. One patient was Ebo Ahmed, a 60-year-old who has had many complications due to the type III FGM/C that was performed on her years earlier. Ebo has been stitched after every birth of her five children. Now, she has had vaginal prolapse, a condition in which structures such as the uterus, rectum, bladder, urethra, small bowel or the vagina itself begin to fall out of their normal positions. In addition to repairing the prolapse, the medical team removed her uterus as well, all done in effort to ease complications from her FGM/C.
Ebo says, “I used to visit the hospital frequently as I was in severe and constant pain.” This constant pain was due to repeated urinary tract infections and other complications she had due to the FGM/C. Ebo is determined to advocate and teach her community by sharing her experience. “I will advise, if they give me their ears,” she declares. As she prepares for discharge, she expresses her gratitude for the medical procedure, which was nearly free of charge thanks to UNICEF and partners.
Aysaita Primary Hospital is one of the hospitals in Afar region that was upgraded from a health centre in 2014, providing services for a majority pastoralist population of approximately 100,000. Through UNICEF support, the hospital employed a gynaecologist in May 2016. Following his assignment, the hospital started providing inpatient and outpatient management for FGM/C complications and different gynaecologic and obstetric cases.
The hospital has five trained health providers on clinical management of FGM/C victims and has two admission wards with a total of 10 beds. In 2017, they treated 292 cases, up from zero in 2016. With efforts from community members such as Zahara and Ebo and treatment from medical staff such as Dr. Hatesy, the goal is that one day again, the cases will be at zero – this time as a sign of tremendous progress towards eradicating the FGM/C practice.