My best friend is my awule (rescuer)

How friendship saved a girl from FGM in Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples' Region

By Demissew Bizuwerk
Magfira Kemsur (L) and Mekiya Mude (R)
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/ Mulugeta Ayene
21 January 2021

As Mekiya Mude, 11, and her best friend walked to school one bright November          morning, their intimate conversation was about the previous day’s events. Before leaving home, her mother had told her that she would be  circumcised at dusk along with her elder brother. In fact, Mekiya had seen all the preparations for the after-party to celebrate the ritual. She was too young to know all the consequences of female        genital mutilation (FGM) but old enough to understand from girls subjected to FGM in her neighbourhood and school that it came with much pain.   

Mekiya was anxious to talk to her best friend and classmate Magfira Kemsur.  

“My mom told me that I am going to be cut tonight. I am so worried,” she tells her friend. Magfira was disturbed to hear this and worried about her own fate as well. “Does that mean I might be next?” 

The two young girls fretted at school, contemplating what would happen when they would go back home. But Magfira had an idea. She knew that her father was a member of the village surveillance team that monitors harmful practices like FGM.  

“When I came back from school, I told my father that Mekiya was going to be cut,” she says. She hoped that her father would use his influence to save her best friend. And it was a smart move.  

Magfira’s father immediately alerted the kebele (sub-district) administrator Kesi Shifa and the focal person on women issues, Woizero (Mrs) Botege Sancha. Both came to Mekiya’s house and confronted her parents. “We know that when families make preparations to circumcise boys, that is also taken as cover to cut girls,” says Botege. “So, we had to take immediate action.”  

Botege Sancha
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/ Mulugeta Ayene
Botege Sancha, the focal person for women issues in Ebot Trora kebele, saved Mekiya from undergoing FGM. She is an outspoken woman against the practice and looks after girls in the villages.

Botege, an outspoken critic of FGM and child marriage, challenged Mekiya’s mother. “I was so disappointed to hear that Sofia [Mekiya’s mother] still wanted to get her daughter cut. The community has decided to stop the practice,” she says.   

“I thought ‘just a little cut’ was okay for the sake of keeping the ritual of the sunnah”, says Sofia. “I was worried that my daughter would be different if she was not cut. I was wrong. My husband was against the idea.”  

Botege was so protective that she took Mekiya with her. Meanwhile, she and the other local administration members sat with the girl’s parents to convince them that FGM, in any form, was totally ‘unacceptable’ and not a requirement in Islam.   

After three days, Mekiya returned home wearing a new hijab and shoes bought by Botege. She was happy to escape the ordeal of FGM.  

Despite being internationaly recognized as a human rights violation, FGM continues to be practiced in many countries globally, putting at risk nearly 4 million girls every year.UNICEF estimates that the practice has been performed on at least 200 million girls and women in 31 countries including Ethiopia. In the Southern Nations and Nationalities and People’s region where Mekiya lives, about 50 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years have undergone FGM 2. Often, the cutting happens before the age of 14 but girls as old as 19 are also subjected to the practice.  

Yet the village of Ebot Trora has made great strides against FGM. The local administration has set up a mechanism which involves ulamas (religious leaders), elders, women groups and former circumcisers. Regular community conversations are held to sensitize the villagers while members of the surveillance team keep an eye on suspected activity which puts girls at risk.  

“We closely work with ulamas, women groups, schools, elders and idir leaders [local support group] so that they themselves take action,” says Rawda Mohammed, the kebele manager. “Unless the community is involved, it is impossible to change attitudes.” 

Perhaps, but deep-rooted attitudes are hard to put aside. Some families still send their girls to relatives living in other kebeles where surveillance on FGM is not as strong as in Ebot Trora. “We are aware of this practice. This is the challenge we are facing currently and that is why we have started coordinating surveillance with all the adjacent kebeles,” adds Rawda. 

Magfira (L) and Mekiya (R)
UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/ Mulugeta Ayene
Magfira (L) is so happy that Mekiya (R) is safe and back home. “When Mekiaya told me that she will be cut, I was also worried about myself.”

UNICEF supports community focused social mobilization and behaviour change interventions in partnership with the Government of Ethiopia, notably the Bureau of Women, Children and Youth and Regional Attorney General, and UNFPA. Such prevention mechanisms led by community members like the one in Ebot Trora are showing encouraging results. In addition, girls’ clubs in schools are also playing a critical role in sensitizing their peers against the practice.       

Mekiya is happy. The fifth grader dreams of becoming a teacher. And she is glad to have a friend like Magrifa who will look out for her interests. “I love her. She is my best friend and my awule [rescuer].”        

2 United Nations Children’s Fund, A Profile of Female Genital Mutilation in Ethiopia, UNICEF, New York, 2020.