Girls’ Empowerment Race in Samara to end Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C)

Children race held on the event Girl's Empowerment Regional race
Start of the Children race held as part of Girl’s Empowerment communication campaign in Gonder, Amhara region, Ethiopia © UNICEF Ethiopia 2015/Tesfaye

Addis Ababa, Samara, 1 October 2015 – UNICEF Ethiopia, in partnership with the Afar Bureau of Women Children and Youth Affairs (BoWCYA), the Afar Sport Commission and the Great Ethiopian Run, is organising a mass participation 5 km race in Samara on Sunday 4 October 2015, to promote Girls’ Empowerment. The theme of the run in Samara is “Ending Female Genital Mutilation/ Cutting.”

Despite a steady reduction in Female Genital Mutilation and Cutting (FGM/C) nationally over the past decade, most recent official data from the 2011 Welfare and Monitoring Survey indicates that one in every four girls (23 per cent) is subjected to the practice. In the Afar Region, there has also been a steady decline, however, still an alarming 60 per cent of girls under the age of 14 years are subjected to female genital mutilation/cutting, placing the region second after Somali.[i]

In Afar, girls are subjected to an extreme form of the practice – infibulation – which involves total cutting of the genitalia followed by stitching. This practice usually happens when girls are between seven and nine years old, but in some districts in Afar this practice even occurs when girl babies are only a few days old. 

The Government, recognising that the abandonment of female genital mutilation requires a human-rights based approach and coordinated joint action by all actors, has adopted a National Strategy and Action Plan on Harmful Traditional Practices against Women and Children (2013) and established a National Alliance to End Child Marriage and FGM/C.

The Government of Afar with UNICEF and other partners is implementing interventions to address FGM/C around 3 pillars: prevention, protection and provision of services. Regarding prevention, girls’ empowerment programmes are underway through girls clubs, incentives to keep girls in school and social mobilisation activities, including this race. In addition, religious leaders and communities are working together in social mobilisation initiatives through community conversations and public declarations on the abandonment of the practice coupled with health extension workers’ awareness-raising efforts with communities on the negative health impact of the practice. Police, judges and prosecutors are being trained and specialised police units have been established to better respond to cases of FGM/C and to provide protection and child-friendly justice to girls. Health practitioners are increasingly providing services to girls who are suffering from complications resulting from FGM/C.

Through the ‘UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: Accelerating Change’,  UNFPA and UNICEF support the Government of Ethiopia and other partners such as the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA) and Rohi Weddu to strengthen legislation outlawing the practice and to carry out activities enabling communities to make a coordinated and collective choice to abandon FGM/C.

FGM victim Ten year old Sadiye Abubakar in Mille, Afar, Ethiopia
Ten year old Sadiye Abubakar, admitted to Barbara May Hospital in Mille, Afar with her mother Sofya, unable to pass urine for more or less a month. ©Ethiopia/2013/Colville-Ebeling

“FGM/C is a violation of a girl’s right to health, well-being and self-determination,” says Gillian Mellsop, UNICEF Representative to Ethiopia. “FGM/C may cause severe pain and can result in prolonged bleeding, infection, infertility and even death. FGM/C is also harmful to new-borns due to adverse obstetric outcomes, leading to perinatal deaths.  The challenge now is to let girls and women, boys and men speak out loudly and clearly and announce they want this harmful practice abandoned,” she added.

A total of 2000 adults and 500 children are expected to participate in the mass mobilisation race, while over 5000 thousand spectators are expected to attend the community outreach programme. In addition, a photo and art exhibition, which is open to the public, and a media roundtable discussion will take place on the eve of the race. 

The events will be attended by high-level government dignitaries, representatives from the UN, NGOs, CSOs and members of the media. In addition, Thomas Gobena also known as “Tommy T”, international bass player for Gogol Bordello Band and who will be appointed as a National Ambassador to UNICEF Ethiopia this month will attend the activities in Samara. Other renowned artists and sport personalities will also attend the event to support the messaging around Girls’ Empowerment.

The Teenage Parliamentarian

By Bethlehem Kiros

Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia
Ubah Jemal, 15, makes a call before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga, Somali Region, Ethiopia, 24 January 2015. Ubah is the vice president of the Somali Region Children’s Parliament, a position that enabled her to engage and empower girls in Jigjiga town, where she lives. In addition to heading the Girls Club in her own high school, she is responsible for setting up similar clubs in all the primary schools of her town. Ubah wants to pursue the field of medicine while continuing to serve in leadership position. “I want to become a doctor because it grants the opportunity to touch peoples’ lives directly, but ultimately, I want to become a leader, preferably a president,” she says. ©UNICEF Ethiopia/2015/Bindra

SOMALI REGION, 24 January 2014 – “Dreams won’t cost you a thing, so dream,’’ cheerfully exclaimed Ubah Jemal, as she concluded delivering one of her weekly pep talks to the Girls Club members from all the primary schools in Jigjiga town, the capital of the Somali region. A 12th grader at the Jigjiga Senior Secondary and Preparatory School, 15 years old Ubah is well known among female primary and high school students in Jigjiga for her inspirational speeches and her ability to organise and lead. Even at her childhood, she was made to skip third and fourth grade because of her intelligence. Spotted first by the Regional government officials while presenting a speech as a representative of her School Parliament, Ubah was often invited to attend meetings that were organised by the Regional Bureau of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (BOWCYA). Then three years ago, upon the formation of the Somali Region Children’s Parliament, she was elected as vice president, acquiring a role that enabled her to spread her wings beyond her own high school. As part of the global initiative to promote the rights and roles of children in the society, children parliaments are formed in each of the nine regional states and the two city administrations in Ethiopia. Picked from various schools across the nation, Ubah and her fellow appointees serve as mouthpieces of all under 18 children throughout the country.

Leadership with results

Ubah Jemal, 15, applies makeup before a meeting of the Girls Club in Jigjiga Right after she assumed her position as vice-president, she was given the role to head the Girls Club in her school that was established that same year, when she was at the 9th grade. The club absorbed other existing clubs like the anti FGM (Female genital mutilation) to address more issues of girls in the region, including FGM. “We wanted it to be a safe place where we can talk freely about all our issues as girls and learn from each other,’’ says Ubah. Besides offering the opportunity of growth through continued discussions, Ubah and her group mates opted for practical ways to help girls, after she had an eye-opening encounter with a classmate. “A girl who was sitting next to me was very stressed because her period suddenly came and she couldn’t leave the room fearing that the teacher and the students will see her cloth,’’ she recalls, ‘’and she was also very hesitant to tell me because apparently, it is a taboo to talk about such things.’’ She adds that an idea came to her right there to create a space in school where girls can access the proper sanitation materials, clean and freshen up, and even take painkiller pills and nap if they feel sick. Consequently, the Girls Club called a meeting of all female students in the school to raise money, and eventually made this idea a reality. “Once they saw that we made it possible, BOWCYA started supporting us and now UNICEF provides the sanitation supplies regularly,’’ says Ubah.

She believes that the availability of the girls’ room has contributed to an increase in attendance of girl students, since some girls have the tendency of not showing up to school, sometimes for a whole week, during their menstruation period due to their inability to afford sanitation pads or painful cramps. According to a study conducted by Water Aid, 51 per cent of girls in Ethiopia miss up to four school days every month and 39 per cent show reduced performance, when they are on their periods. The severe cramps are especially common among girls who went through Pharaonic circumcision. Dubbed as the most severe form of FGM, Pharaonic circumcision–which refers to the removal of all external genitalia and then the sewing of the remaining parts of outer lips, only leaving a small whole for urine and menstrual flow–-was highly prevalent in the Somali region until its decrease in the last five years through the organised efforts of the local community, religious leaders and the government.

Passing the torch

A member of a high school Girls Club waits by the door for their meeting to start in Jigjiga After making sure that the same model of Girls’ Club is duplicated in the only other high school in Jigjiga town, Ubah spearheaded the formation of Girl Clubs in elementary schools. “I thought it would be beneficial if younger girls also got the chance to organise so I approached the BoWCYA head who regarded it as a great idea,’’ she recounts. In less than a week, Ubah met with the principals of all the four primary schools in Jigjiga town and established four Girl Clubs, each with 30 members. She now meets with them on weekly basis where they get to report and plan their activities, while receiving constant encouragement from her.

According to Ubah, the girls keep watchful eye in their communities and offer assistance when they are needed. So far, they have stopped planned circumcisions, supported indigent children with school materials, and even found foster parents for few orphaned students. Ubah is confident that there will be many girls who are now empowered enough to take over her responsibilities when she goes to university, which is in less than eight months. Her plan is to study medicine either at the Addis Ababa University or go abroad, if she gets a scholarship. “I want to become a doctor because it grants the opportunity to touch peoples’ lives directly, but ultimately, I want to become a leader, preferably a president,’’ she laughs. “Who can charge me from dreaming?’’

Blissless Matrimony

By Bethlehem Kiros

GOHA, AMHARA REGION-  For Serkadis Hunachew, her wedding, instead of a happy, blissful day,  was an utter source of anguish, an untimely and forced rite of passage. “I was crying when people were dancing and celebrating,’’ says the 13- year-old regarding her wedding ceremony that took place two years ago.

According to Serkadis, her tears were preceded by shock as she was completely unaware that she was about to be married until the very morning of the ceremony when they were dressing her for the occasion. To her, marriage meant tragedy as it would not only loot her of her childhood but also shatter her dream of finishing school and making something of herself. At first, she contemplated running away but later decided to stay in order to spare her parents the embarrassment. She says that the only comfort she had at the time was the possibility that the marriage could be annulled after the ceremony.

AMHARA_274_IMG_0662, Bindra
Serkadis Hunachew, 13, (left) is one of the thirteen children of a destitute farmer who gave her away in marriage, mainly to relieve himself from the responsibility of providing for her. Haimanot Gashu (right), 12, sits in a classroom with Serkadis where they are in 6th grade at Goha Primary School in Goha Kebele (sub-district)

As the day advanced and guests flocked to their house, the celebration and dancing escalated but Serkadis’ gloomy mood did not change: a situation that annoyed her father. “He hit me because I couldn’t stop crying,’’ she recounts. When a wedding day ends, the custom is for the groom to take his bride at the back of a mule to his own parent’s house but Serkadis, still very upset, refused to ride with him. “I rode with another boy from my village all the way to Ambessame,’’ she explains. Ambessame is the nearest rural town to her village and the seat of the Dera woreda (district) administration.

Though the wedding officially renders her married, it was not expected of her to commence her wifely duties, as the arrangement was to keep her under the custody of her parents until she is considered fit to run her own home. Hence, after she spent five days with her husband’s family, sharing a bed with his sisters, she returned back to her village, Goha upon the request of her parents.

The Ethiopian constitution clearly stipulates that in all actions concerning children, the best interest of the child should always take precedence. Moreover, the government has ratified international conventions that stand for the protection of the rights of children and various governmental and non-governmental organizations are working to support the abandonment practices such as child marriage that are clearly against the best interest of children. Yet, Ethiopia remains to have one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. At the forefront, is the Amhara regional state where almost half of the female children are said to be married before they reach 18, although the regional government has adopted the federal family code that criminalizes marriage before the age of 18.

Poverty, which is the primary challenge of the region, is said to be one of the main driving factors for child marriage. Serkadis’ parents are also admittedly unable to provide for her due to their poor means of survival. “They told me that their main reason for marrying me off is their inability to send me to school anymore,’’ she says. When her parents say they cannot afford to send her to school, they are referring to the school materials, mainly notebooks that they are only expected to purchase a few times a year, (not school fees, as government schools are tuition free).

Second to the last of 13 children, Serkadis states that her family lives in extreme poverty that worsened after a large part of their land was apportioned among her brothers who have started their own families. “My parents have not bought clothes for me for a while and it is my teachers that even buy soap for me,’’ she says.

When she got back home after her honeymoon and they broke the news to her that she would not be going to school, her response was, “If I have to, I’ll move to the city, work as a house maid and earn my own income to go to school.” However, she might not need to go to that extent as one of her brothers, who recently heard about her marriage, invited her to live with him in Bahirdar city where she can go to school while helping him in his shop.

AMHARA_275_IMG_0685
Haimanot Gashu (center), 12, stands outside the Goha Primary School in Goha Kebele, Dera Woreda, Amhara Region, Ethiopia, 28 January 2015. Married at the age of seven, she is currently under a lot of pressure from her mother to move in with her husband, as she is now considered old enough to run her own home. She currently lives with her uncle and aunt.

Serkadis is considering taking her brothers offer since her father has informed her that she will move in with her husband at the end of the year. Despite the continued pressure from her family, Serkadis persists with her decision to take no part in the arrangement. According to her, she is so detached to the whole idea that she did not even make an effort to know the name of her husband. “What good would it do for me to know his name? I don’t want anything to do with him,’’ she firmly states.

Due to the wedding and the ensuing arguments with her father, Serkadis had to quit school during the year of the wedding but she managed to repeat the 5th grade last year and is now at the 6th grade. Before her father pulls her out of school again, she is planning to go to her school headmaster and ask for her school transcript so that she can go to Bahirdar with her sister who recently came for a visit after many years. “My sister was very angry at my father for what he did so she told me that she will take me with her to Bahirdar if I get my report card this week,’’ she explains. Once in Bahirdar, Serkadis will then decide whether she will stay with her sister or brother.

Her only reservation is leaving her mother behind. “My mother has heart problems, and it is me who always looks after her and the house when she gets sick,’’ she says. “But if they are planning to send me to my husband soon, I might as well go to Bahirdar where I can have a better future.’’