Determined to stop FGM, an adolescent girl influences her peers and community to end FGM

Koshe, Ethiopia

By Martha Tadesse
Meskerem Muleta, 16, grade 7
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Tadesse
24 February 2020

Meskerem Muleta (16) is a grade seven student at Koshe Primary School, Hamus Gebeya village in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region (SNNPR). Meskerem is well known in her neighborhood for advocating for an end to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

She recalls, “I learned about FGM in grade five. I remember how shocked I was because nobody had told me about its impact before. After some time, I overheard a friend of my mother telling her that my sisters and I should get circumcised. Then I tried to tel1 my mother about what I had learned at school, but she didn’t pay attention.” 

Meskerem Muleta, 16, grade 7
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Tadesse
Meskerem Muleta, 16, grade 7, sharing her experience with her school mates at Koshe Primary School. Mareko Woreda, SNNPR

The deeply rooted practice of FGM is a concern in SNNPR where the prevalence among women aged 15 to 49 years is 62 per cent (EDHS 2016). To meet Sustainable Development Goal target 5.3 and eliminate the practice by 2030, progress in the Region would need to be 13 times faster than the rate observed over the past fifteen years amongst girls aged 15 to 19 (For more information, refer to the statistical brochure, “A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia”).

Reflecting on the time when she and her sisters almost got circumcised, Meskerem says, “I remember an old man coming to our house to circumcise my younger sisters and me. I hid my sisters in the kitchen and went out to fight for us. I told my mother that nobody was touching us, or I would sue her.”

Meskerem Muleta, 16, grade 7
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Tadesse
Meskerem Muleta, 16, grade 7, with Firework Tegene and Muleta Obse, her mother and father respectively. Meskerem has changed not only her parents perspectives on FGM but her neighbors and school mates. Hamus Gebeya Woreda, SNNPR

Firework Tegene, Meskerem’s mother, also recalls the event. “She kept talking about what she learned at school about FGM, its health consequences and what the law said, but I come from a very traditional family and I felt so ashamed for not keeping the tradition,” says Firework. “Meskerem was so angry when she saw the man. She told me she would sue me. How serious she was about it scared me. But still, there were days I wanted to hide the kids from her and get them circumcised to keep our tradition and out of fear of discrimination. I resisted for some time but came to understand how harmful it is through education from my daughter and husband.”

Muleta Obse, Meskerem’s father, also reflects, “We were called for a government meeting to discuss issues relating to harmful practices a while back, but my wife wasn’t convinced. She was scared of the gossip or stigma against all of us, so I was glad to see my daughter support me with what she had learned at school. My daughter makes me proud. She has rescued herself, her sisters and girls in the neighborhood.”

UNICEF provides technical and financial support for the prevention and response to FGM in line with the Ethiopian government’s commitment to end FGM by 2025 and the recently launched 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 behavior change activities engage entire communities to examine the practice and beliefs supporting the practice and question social and gender norms which perpetuate FGM and gender inequality. Such community conversations and adolescent girls’ dialogues are supported by the engagement of religious and other community leaders, as well as by awareness raising interventions with media.

Meskerem rescued not only herself and her sisters but her close school friend who told her in secret that her mother was planning to have her circumcised. “She asked me how I rescued myself and what she should do. I told her to warn her mother to sue but the mother came to school looking for me. She told me to stay away from her daughter. I then decided to hide my friend in our house for the weekend and we went back to school after that. We argued with her mother for some time. My father, who by then was a member of community conversations, helped me to explain the consequences of FGM to my friend’s mother,” she says. Thanks to Meskerem, she remained uncut.

Gender clubs in schools, another intervention, have been playing a key role in tackling harmful practices by encouraging discussions among students and creating a space for support. Meskerem uses her school’s gender club to speak about her story and her family’s transformation. In addition, she organizes small gatherings at her school to challenge her classmates’ perspectives on harmful practices. Explaining how her classmates gained an understanding of the issue, she says “boys in our class used to laugh at me when I first organized a discussion to raise the issue of harmful practices. Now that has changed, and I have boys in my team that speak against FGM. We do that by going around in each class.”

Ananya Beraso (15), an 8th grade student at the same school talks about how he joined the advocacy group.

“I learned a lot about FGM from Meskerem when she went around classes and shared her story. I promised to advocate with her when I first heard about her story and what she learned from her training at the district office. I plan to be more involved and make FGM history in our community together with Meskerem.”

Abaynesh Nine, expert at the government office of Women, Children and Youth in Mareko district, acknowledges the challenges to bring change in communities, “changing harmful social constructs and generational practices that affect girls and women like child marriage and FGM can be difficult. However, we are seeing many ex-circumcisers speaking up against FGM. We also have religious leaders and students like Meskerem who are tirelessly and voluntarily advocating by our side.” 

Meskerem is now part of a soccer team in her town and is using this as an opportunity to raise awareness on FGM among her team. She wants to be a women's rights advocate and hopes to spread the word. “I have only been speaking at my school and visiting some families in my community, but I hope to get bigger platforms to speak and advocate for girls and women’s rights. I want to go to rural areas and share my experience. I want to continue speaking against FGM and empower girls to fight FGM in my community until it becomes history.”

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.