Community in Afar join forces to end FGM

Chifra, Afar Region, Ethiopia

By Martha Tadesse
Ahmed Ali and Mariam Abdu were separated for a month because of Mariam's decision to take their daughter for circumcision. Chifra woreda, Afar region © UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse

23 April 2019

Mariam Abdu (30) and Ahmed Ali (40) have been married since 2003 and together have four daughters and two sons. Mariam says two of their daughters (ages 12 and 6) have undergone type III Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), the worst form of FGM/C also known as infibulation, whereby vaginal opening is partially sewn shut. She herself is also a survivor of infibulation.

“There was no education on FGM back then, and I wasn’t aware of the consequences,” she says. “I suffered a lot while giving birth, but I didn’t know that it was FGM that caused all that pain. My labor was very long, and periods are very painful.”  

Mariam first learned about the consequences of FGM/C through her husband Ahmed who had joined a community surveillance group in 2015. The group, comprising 11 decision-makers from the Ander Kelu kebele (sub-district), consists of the kebele administrator, a women’s league leader, a youth league leader, a clan leader, a health extension worker, a member of the community police, a school director, an ex-circumciser, a religious leader, a kebele spokesperson and a former traditional birth attendant.

Ahmed, the kebele Administrator, had learned about the consequences of FGM/C through training provided by the Regional Attorney General, formerly known as the Bureau of Justice, together with the Afar Region’s Bureau of Women, Children and Youth (BoWCY). Four Years later, he participated in legal awareness sessions in Semera and Assayta cities that focused on the legal criminalization of FGM/C and was later trained on law enforcement in 2015. Ahmed says joining the surveillance group enabled him to gain knowledge and stand against the practice.

Mr. Abdu Saleh, in charge of law enforcement in the Regional Attorney General’s office, says the surveillance group has brought about a lot of change in the community because its members represent diverse communities. The religious leaders, for example, can challenge the community on wrong interpretations of scripture and answer questions.

“The surveillance group is a platform for community discussions in which harmful social norms are challenged,” he says.

According to the 2016 Ethiopia Demographic and Health Survey (EDHS), FGM/C prevalence among women aged 15-49 years in Afar is 91 per cent, well above the national average of 65 per cent. Based on progress in the last 10 years, the Region will have to move 37 times faster (nationally, progress would need to be seven times faster) if FGM/C is to be eliminated by 2030 – as per Sustainable Development Goal target 5.3 on elimination of FGM/C and child marriage, and noting the government of Ethiopia committed to eliminate the practice by 2025.

Ongoing interventions include a joint multi-country UNFPA–UNICEF programme on FGM/C which has been implemented in Afar since 2008. The first phase lasted between 2008-2013 and covered Amibara, Argoba, Awash Fentale, Dulesa, Gelaelo and Gewane districts, all of which made a public declaration to abandon FGM/C. Three new districts of Mille, Chifra and Adar were added in the second phase, which lasted between 2014-2017, and the third phase which began in 2018 and will end in 2021. The programme is enabling community and religious leaders to understand and address FGM/C, training law enforcement bodies, and empowering girls and women to stand up against the practice.

Mariam says after giving birth to their fourth child Zahara, she was under tremendous pressure from the community to subject Zahra to FGM/C.

Mariam Abdu took her child for circumcision without her husband's consultation as he was not supportive of FGM?C. she said, "No mother wants to see her child go through it. It is wrong understanding of culture that is affecting our community." Anderkelu Kebele, Chifra Woreda, Afar region © UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
Mariam Abdu took her child for circumcision without her husband's consultation as he was not supportive of FGM/C. she said, "No mother wants to see her child go through it. It is wrong understanding of culture that is affecting our community." Anderkelu Kebele, Chifra Woreda, Afar region

“I feared that my daughter would be the only one without circumcision. I did not want her to be an outcast in the community, so, I decided for her to receive type I FGM/C[1] without informing Ahmed because he had warned me that nobody should touch her.

Zahara suffered a lot after the cutting. Mariam recalls being depressed as Zahra was unable to urinate properly and cried in pain every day. Although she was afraid of telling him, it didn’t take long before Ahmed found out.

“I was angry because after all the discussions we’d had, she had decided to have Zahara cut. I went to the kebele administrator and sued both my wife and the circumciser. I left my wife for a month because I was very angry with her,” he says.

Ahmed not only left the house but took Zahara to Barbra Hospital in Mille for surgery when she was three months old to resolve some of the complications she was having.

Ahmed Ali and Mariam Abdu were separated for a month because of Mariam's decision to take their daughter for circumcision. Chifra woreda, Afar region © UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse
Ahmed Ali and Mariam Abdu were separated for a month because of Mariam's decision to take their daughter for circumcision. Chifra woreda, Afar region © UNICEF Ethiopia/2019/Tadesse

Mariam reflects, “Who would want to cause so much pain to their daughter? The cultural influence is so strong, and you go through it knowing the consequences. I was so devastated with what happened. Had I not been breastfeeding then, I probably would have been faced with serious penalties”. This was in consideration of the best interest of the child.  

Ahmed echoes the influence of culture, saying, “I understand that it is the cultural belief and myth that led my wife to decide this. After community leaders intervened, I returned to the house and made peace with my wife. We now have a month-old baby girl, and nobody is going to touch her, not while I am alive.”

Mariam believes that FGM/C can be history in Afar if initiatives like the UNFPA-UNICEF joint programme continue to raise awareness in communities and support change of social and gender norms which are harmful to girls and women.

“A mother used to slaughter a goat on the day of her daughter’s circumcision. It used to be a big celebration. Then came a time when a mother would do this behind closed doors, but it has now become a taboo. This shows that there is so much hope for our community to end this harmful practice through education. The role of religious leaders is very crucial. I am glad they are part of the surveillance group, because the main problem is wrong religious beliefs.”      

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[1] WHO definition: Type I — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce (clitoridectomy)
   Type II — Partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (excision)
   Type III — Narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and appositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris (infibulation)