Survivors of FGM facilitate discussions to end the practice

By Martha Tadesse

Fatuma learned about the impacts of FGM/C after her first delivery and refused to have her daughters go through the same procedure.

Chifra, Afar, 23 January 2018 – “I had severe period pain, and my labour was a life and death situation,” says Fatuma Abdu, 28, who had undergone Type III FGM/C as a child. Fatuma has two daughters, a 4–year-old and a 20-months-old.

She recalls her first pregnancy experience saying, “I was very weak during my first pregnancy. I was in labour for 24 hours before they took me to the hospital. I gave birth at the hospital. However, because of our tradition, I have stitched again. My menstrual cycle pain was agonizing. I got pregnant again, and it was worse than my first experience. I was in labour for three days until I was unconscious and found myself at Mille Maternity hospital.

The doctor told me I would have suffered from fistula had I stayed home longer than that. I had a stillbirth.  I was physically and emotionally hurt. My third pregnancy was much better because of the surgery at the hospital.”

Zahara Mohammod, 28 discusses about FGM/C with “Unmarried Adolescent Girls’ Club” at Mille Woreda, Afar. © UNICEF Ethiopia /2018/Tadesse

Fatuma learned about the impacts of FGM/C after her first delivery and refused to have her daughters go through the same procedure. She explains how it was difficult to convince her husband on her decision saying, because “The day I went through all that because of my FGM/C procedure was the same day I made that decision. My husband disagreed because we had always thought we were right to practice FGM/C. Mind you, even though he knew how much I have suffered, he still could not make up his mind. I told him I would sue anyone who would touch my daughters and that was it.”

The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme has been working in collaboration with Bureau of Women and Children Affairs (BoWCA) to accelerate the abandonment of FGM/C in Afar region since November 2008. During the implementation of its first phase that ended in 2013, the programme targeted six districts out of the 32 districts in the region, which have declared abandonment of FGM/C presently.

According to the assessment made at the end of this first phase, the programme has resulted in substantial changes in belief and practice of FGM/C in target districts, with a practice decline from 90 per cent in 2008 to 39 per cent after five years of intervention. The second phase of the programme is currently implementing social mobilization interventions in three districts with the aim of improving community knowledge, attitude and practice. The programme heavily focuses on the engagement of community and religious leaders who are the most influential persons in the community. Additionally, the programme promotes community conversations through various discussion groups to create awareness and empower community members for a lasting change.

Fatuma is among the trainers who have been selected to facilitate discussion groups in their communities. The UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme has trained 176 facilitators for community conversation and dialogue from 3 districts on FGM/C and early marriage. This community conversation and dialogue on FGM/C is inclusive of girls, boys, men, women, and the youth in the community.

“I hope everyone listens to our suffering and refuses to undergo the FGM/C procedure.”

Sharing her experiences with the training, Fatuma states, “The training was such an eye-opener. I was challenged regarding my wrong beliefs, and it helped me speak up for others.”

According to Sheikh Mohammod Dersa, President of the Islamic Affairs Supreme Council in Afar, the FGM/C intervention by UNFPA-UNICEF has brought a behavioural change in the community.

He states, “We are grateful for what UNFPA and UNICEF have done in our region. We have been working with them hand in hand. But, we still need to work harder, because the issue is deeply rooted in social and religious norms. Social norms are powerful. We need to know that this is a generational issue, as well. It takes a lot of effort and collaboration to challenge communities and achieve the goal of ending FGM/C. We are always ready to teach our community, and we hope the programme continues and expands to other districts.”

FGM/C survivors teach communities to end the practice in Ethiopia

By Martha Tadesse

“I used to believe 12 years ago that FGM/C is a mandatory requirement in our religion Islam. I was doing what every mother did back then.”

Mille, Afar, 23 January 2018 – “My labor took two nights and a day. I was in so much pain. It was a very painful experience and most of all, I was a child myself.” says Kedija Mohammod, a mother of three children (ages 12, 8 and 5).

Kedija learned about the harmful effects of FGM/C through community conversations supported by the UNICEF-UNFPA Joint Programme, in partnership with Bureau of Women and Children Affairs (BoWCA), to accelerate the abandonment of FGM/C in the Afar region.

FGM/C or locally known as KetnterKeltti, the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia, is a highly prevalent traditional practice in Ethiopia that has a multi-dimensional impact on the lives of girls and women.

According to Ethiopia and Demographic Health Survey (EDHS) 2016, FGM/C rate in Afar is 91 per cent for ages of 15-49, placing it among the highest prevalent regions in the country next to Somali. Moreover, the region practices Type III infibulation, which is the most severe form of FGM/C characterized by the total elimination of the external female genitalia and stitching, leaving a small opening for urination.

“No one should go through what we Afar women have gone through. I can’t even explain the pain.”

The UNICEF-UNFPA Global Programme, which was launched in November 2008, promotes community-led discussions on harmful practices like FGM/C in which communities are empowered to progress toward collective abandonment.

The programme targets 9 districts (3 in zone 1 and 6 in zone 3) in the Afar region, each having multiple sub-districts. A total of 60 trainers were trained for married and unmarried adolescent girls from these districts and they are trained on harmful practices and menstrual hygiene in order to lead various discussion groups in their communities. These married and unmarried adolescent girls’ clubs aim to facilitate sustained awareness.

FGM/C prevention and care Afar
Zahara Mohammod, 28 discusses about FGM/C with “Unmarried Adolescent Girls’ Club” at Mille Woreda, Afar. © UNICEF Ethiopia /2018/Tadesse

Zahara Mohammod, one of the trainers in Mille Woreda, testifies that the programme has brought a huge difference in the community. She says, “People used to think that FGM/C is required by the Quran, but the programme has raised awareness among the community on the lack of direct link between the practice and religion. People are now listening and most have changed their stance. Women used to give birth in their houses, and we have lost many due to prolonged labor. But now, the Barbra May Maternity Hospital is a few minutes away from our village, so women go to the hospital for delivery and treatment. This is happening because of community conversations and girls’ club discussions in our villages.”

Kedija, an FGM/C survivor herself, regrets having made her daughter go through the same procedure. She says, “I used to think 12 years ago that FGM/C is mandatory and a requirement in my religion Islam. I was doing what every mother did back then.”

However, Kedija is now teaching her community and sharing her experience. “ I have been working with the community for two years now and the change motivates me to do even more. People used to mock me at first because FGM/C is considered as a religious practice, but many have changed their attitude and are thankful for our discussions now. I have never thought FGM/C could have consequences like mental and emotional damage until I had my first intercourse with my husband. No one should go through what we Afar women have gone through. I can’t even explain the pain.”

While talking about her daughter, Kedija says, “I have shared my experience with my daughter. She is aware of the consequences. My daughter is now in grade 7. I will not marry her off to anyone out of her will. She will get married when she finishes her education. I hope she will marry an educated man who can take care of her and take her to the hospital during her labor.”

According to Seada Moahmmod, at BoWCA, these discussions have been increasing awareness and openly challenging community perspectives towards FGM/C. She says, “The community’s awareness has improved a lot, and people discuss openly about the practice. They used to think that exposing stories would lead them to discrimination, but cases are now exposed to local enforcement bodies.  Many households have already rejected FGM/C. It is quite a success.”

While positive outcomes have certainly been observed in the districts, Zahra Humed, Head BoWCA of the region, says, “The outcome of the programme has been very rewarding and the behavioral change we have attained is wonderful. However, we still need to continue working until all districts abandon the practice once and for all. ”