Former circumcizer becomes a change agent to end female genital mutilation
Imam Betoro Mikoro, (83) was a circumciser for more than 40 years in Koshe town, Mareko district, in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) Region of Ethiopia. He had learned how to perform what is commonly referred to as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from his neighbor.
“Families used to throw big celebrations and they would invite neighbors,” he says. “It was a big feast with lots of food and drink.”
Girls in Mareko would be circumcised when parents deemed them of a marriageable age, which was between 13-15 years.
“Circumcision would happen a year before the wedding and, during that time, I would circumcise two to three girls a day,” says Imam Betoro. In exchange, he would receive food and drinks.
“I didn’t get money, but I ate and drank all night with the family and guests, and I was treated as guest of honor at the ceremony.” He says circumcisers started charging parents money when the practice of family celebrations ended. “People stopped the celebratory feasts as life became difficult for many, so we started charging them 30 Ethiopian Birr or so (about US$1). It became a source of income.”
According to the 2016 Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey, two in three women aged between 15 to 49 years in the SNNP Region have undergone FGM. For the Region to meet Sustainable Development Goal target 5.3 of eliminating the practice by 2030, progress among the younger age group between 15 to 19 would have to be 13 times faster than observed over the last fifteen years (Refer to “A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia”).
Imam Betoro learned about the harmful effects of FGM in 2017 through an anti-FGM campaign conducted by the Office of Women, Children and Youth.
“They taught me that it is a harmful practice which has serious consequence for girls and that it is a crime,” he says.
Imam Betoro however was not easily convinced.
“I wasn’t convinced because I had been doing it for so many years, and it was part of our tradition. I also thought that it was a religious task that Muslims had to do. And then, I was surprised to see religious leaders teaching alongside people from the government. That helped me change my mind.”
Through regular community conversations and the involvement of religious leaders in the discussions, Imam Betoro stopped circumcising girls.
“After I learned a lot from the religious leaders who were part of the community conversations, I stopped working as a circumciser and I started growing crops. That’s how I am supporting my family at the moment.”
Mohammod Jumato, the prosecutor in Mareko District, says the Region’s Attorney General has been strict regarding implementation of the law.
“We have been bringing circumcisers to court and to prison, but the problem is there is still a lack of behavior change in the community, which means we still have people circumcising behind closed doors,” he says.
Mohammod says religious leaders play a key role in bringing about change.
“We see a gap in understanding the harm in practices like FGM. People are not doing it in public because they are trying to hide from the law. We need more religious leaders to come forward and speak about it. People need to know that it is not a religious requirement for women and girls to undergo FGM. Rather, they should believe that it is a harmful practice.”
Even though Imam Betoro’s change of mind was a result of religious leaders, he alludes to the challenges they face in coming together to confront FGM.
“In my area, the Muslim community has been split into two due to a lack of agreement on the harmfulness of FGM. The issue has divided us as a community, and religious leaders that are speaking up against FGM aren’t many. Their arguments aren’t supported by adequate materials and messages to convince the masses. But religious leaders are our role models, and we believe what they tell us more than anything else.”
Abaynesh Nine from the Office of Women, Children and Youth in Mareko reflects on other challenges.
“With the support of UNICEF, the district supports 11 Kebeles, and families practice FGM in rural areas where we have limited access. We have to expand our target groups in order to reach the wider community.”
Community conversations are one of the strategies implemented by the UNFPA-UNICEF Joint Programme on FGM to bring about social change. A community conversation is conducted with 60 to 70 members and facilitated by a team of two. These facilitators are trained by the Bureau of Women, Children and Youth on topics such as safe delivery, ending FGM, and child marriage. They meet twice a month to agree on actions to tackle FGM and other harmful practices. The facilitators report their discussions and action points to the Bureau through their district representatives.
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.