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Ethiopia, 24 August 2010: With UNICEF and European Union support, young women lead the fight against FGM

By Chris Niles

IMDIBIR, Ethiopia, 24 August 2010 – When she was seven years old, Maeza Garedew, now 14, was blindfolded and her hands and legs tied behind her back. She was laid on a board and then taken outside to the garden.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on the campaign to end female genital cutting in Ethiopia within a generation.

“They covered my eyes and they tied up my hands until she finished,” Maeza recalled. “When they untied me and opened my blindfold, I slapped the cutter in the face.”

Harmful norms

Maeza’s parents decided to have Maeza and her younger sister, Tigist, cut because it was socially expected of them. In many communities in Ethiopia, it is commonly believed that cutting makes daughters more marriageable and less inclined to speak their mind.

“At the time, I hadn’t heard anything about the harms of cutting,” said Maeza’s mother, Tenaya Tessema, a soft-spoken mother of five. “I simply didn’t want them to be out-spoken and insulted by others. I got them cut to spare them that shame.”

But change is taking place in Ethiopia. Today, the deep-rooted practice of cutting girls is being questioned at the most fundamental levels.

Changing attitudes

UNICEF estimates that about three-quarters of Ethiopian women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been cut. In sharp contrast, however, only about 40 per cent of the daughters of these women have undergone the practice.

To encourage a universal end to the practice of cutting, UNICEF and the European Union are promoting positive social change in the three areas of Ethiopia where cutting is most prevalent.

The process is collaborative and involves the whole community. Because of the power of harmful social norms, it is virtually impossible for individuals to end the practice alone, even if they are aware of the dangers.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2259/Holt
Meaza, 14, outside the Imdibir Secondary School in the town of Imdibir, in Cheha District, Ethiopia.

Community abandonment

“There’ve been very important activities implemented through this programme, focusing on community dialogue,” said UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia Ted Chaiban, adding that open discussion ultimately “gets opinion leaders at community level, religious leaders, chiefs, elders, and the women themselves to abandon the practice of female genital cutting.”

 The process ends with a public abandonment ceremony in which the community jointly decides to end a harmful practice.

Maeza and Tigist are symbols of this important change – while they have both been cut, the girls, along with others in their village, have been educated about the dangers of the practice and now know that it is a violation of their human rights. The girls attend Imdibir Secondary School, where UNICEF supports regular discussion about harmful social practices.

Young activists

Armed with knowledge, Maeza and Tigist are now determined to stop other girls from suffering the same fate.

Their first opportunity came when the mother of their friend Beza, 8, came to their house for coffee. The girls overheard her saying that it was time for Beza to be cut.

Maeza and Tigist decided to act. They visited Beza’s mother to persuade her to change her mind. At first she resisted. She believed that Beza would be more docile if she was cut. But the girls did not give up, and eventually they were able to persuade their friend’s mother that cutting would damage Beza’s health.

“I am very happy I stopped Beza from being cut,” said Maeza. “This way when she gets married and has children in the future there will be no complications.” 

Change hits home

Maeza and Tigist have even brought a change in attitude to their own family, which once held deep-seated beliefs about cutting.

“The fact that my children are mature, responsible and educated enough to teach others makes me very proud,” said Ms. Tessema, the girls’ mother.

Maeza plans to continue being a role model for young women. She is a keen student and hopes to become a doctor. “I would be so happy if cutting was totally abandoned in the whole world,” she said.

 

 
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