A Brave Girl Escaped Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation

Martha Tadesse
A Brave Girl Escaped Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022
04 February 2022

Helen Serbamo (20) is a high school graduate from Midore Kebele (sub district), Mareko Woreda (district) in Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Helen shares the story of how she escaped from her family who were planning her circumcision. Escaping FGM takes a lot of bravery in communities like Midore Kebele, where every girl is expected, as a traditional practice, to be circumcised between the age of 11 and 13.  

Helen explains that during circumcision of girls, parents throw a small celebratory feast for family and friends.

“When I found out that my mom was preparing a feast, I realized what was happening and ran away to my extended family. They had circumcised all four of my older sisters in the house, so I knew they were planning the same for me. When I ran away, they told me they would never do it again and brought me back home. But after some time, when I think I was in Grade 5, they started to prepare another feast. I had to ran away again.” 

Helen first learned about FGM at school.

“They taught us the consequences of FGM at school, but at the time, I was too young to fully understand. I also heard from my neighbours how painful FGM is for them. My first two escapes were because of my neighbours’ experience. When they tried to circumcise me for the third time, I was in Grade 8. By then, I had a better understanding of FGM because of the awareness raising events I had attended. This time, my escape was because no girl should be circumcised as it is unnecessary and illegal.” 

“I wanted Helen to be circumcised, just like every other girl in our community,” Helen’s mother, Lemlem Jember, remembers.  “I prepared twice and she ran away. But that didn’t stop me. I tried again because I didn’t want people to insult her for not being circumcised. In the meantime, my eldest son had joined the Bureau of Women and Children Affairs as a mobilization expert. He said that he would sue me if I tried again. He also told Helen to reach out if I tried to convince her. My son learned a lot by working there. He challenged me and taught me so much.

The pressure from my husband and my son stopped me from trying to circumcise Helen, and she was encouraged when both her father and brother supported her.”  

“The culture puts pressure on families. They say uncircumcised girls are naughty and restless. When we circumcised our older daughters, we were simply following what had been done for years in our community,” said Helen’s father, Serbamo Beraso.  “There are families who are still circumcising their daughters, hiding them in the house or by taking them far away to rural areas. This is how deep-rooted the cultural belief is.” 

Helen Serbamo (20) is a high school graduate from Midore Kebele (sub district)
UNICEF Ethiopia/2022

Serbamo also says that he learned about FGM through his eldest son. “As part of the community, I had similar sentiments about FGM. But thanks to my son, we learned so much and decided not to circumcise Helen. I am now active in community conversations and I speak about Helen as a testimony.” 

Mareko is one of seven woredas in SNNPR that receives technical and financial support from UNICEF through the regional Bureau of Women and Children Affairs for the prevention and response to eliminate FGM.  Since 2016, the woreda has been part of the UNICEF support to the Government of Ethiopia, in line with its commitment to end FGM by 2025 and to the rollout of the National Costed Roadmap to end child marriage and FGM/C in Ethiopia (2020–2024).

Interventions include, ensuring that prevention and response services are tailored to the needs of adolescent girls and their families. In parallel, social mobilization and behaviour change activities engage communities in examining the beliefs that support FGM and question social and gender norms which perpetuate both the practice and gender inequality. Community conversations and adolescent girls’ dialogues are supported by the engagement of religious and community leaders, and by media awareness-raising interventions. 

“Even though there has been a lot of positive change in the community, there is still a lot to be done. We need to continue to teach our communities at every gathering, funeral and wedding, in churches and mosques,” explains Serbamo.

“It will take a long time to end FGM. Communities, especially in rural areas need more awareness-raising. It will take time, but it is possible,” adds Lemlem.

“It is wonderful to see my mother’s stand now. She is happy that I didn’t get circumcised. She even warns neighbours that she will report them if they are thinking about circumcising their daughters,” says Helen excited about the change.

On behalf of the girls and women and their families and communities served by the Joint Programme, UNFPA and UNICEF would like to thank the following governments for their financial contributions: The European Union, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.