Female Genital Cutting: Painful procedures in the name of tradition
It is a big day for eight-year-old Hanna Tadesse* and her best friend helps her get ready. Today is the day her parents have decided that she will be circumcised.
“We know about the health risks, but this is our tradition,” says her mother, Asrat Tadesse*. “Without it, she won’t be married. We believe it is a kind of cleaning.”
Neither Asrat* nor her husband will be with their youngest child when she is subjected to female genital cutting (FGC), a practise which includes removing or altering the female genitalia.
“The mother doesn’t want to hear her crying. She will be far, far away,” says UNICEF Ethopia’s Assistant Project Officer for harmful traditional practices (HTPs), Tabeyin Gedlu. “These young children don’t know about health questions. Everything is imposed by their parents. They accept it.”
No one has explained to Hanna* exactly what will happen to her today. She watches silently as the women prepare the area where the cutting will take place, but begins to cry when the traditional practitioner arrives.
It takes six women to hold down the panicked eight-year-old girl. The women cover her head with a scarf and she screams hysterically for her mother. The practitioner coats Hanna’s genitals with ash to steady her grip before slicing off the clitoris and using kerosene aferwards to sterilize the wound. The bloody offering is placed on a palm leaf and taken to Hanna’s parents at their home in the village of Offa Gendeba in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) of Ethiopia.
“She almost lost consciousness, because of the pain. She was just limp, held up by the women,” says Tabeyin. “From a complete body, they made her incomplete.”
The practitioner, Tinsae Wolde* was paid 10 birr, or a little more than a dollar, to perform FGC on Hanna. This was the second circumcision she had performed that morning.
“I am treated with great prestige, with great respect,” the practitioner says. “In the busy time, I can do 20 per day to supplement my income. But if I get another income, I will leave this job.”
Circumcision keeps girls out of classrooms
Estimates of the total number of women living today who have been subjected to genital cutting in Africa range between 100 million and 130 million. Some 26 million have been subjected to infibulation.
FGC is practiced in varying degrees throughout Ethiopia. The most severe form of this practice, infibulation, in which part or all of the external genitalia is removed and the vaginal opening is narrowed by stitching, is practised in in the Somali, Afar, Harari, and some parts of Oromia regions of Ethiopia. In other regions, such Tigray, the clitorial hood is removed with or without the entire clitoris. FGC does irreparable harm. It can result in neurogenic shock (spinal shock), septicaemia (blood poisoning), severe infection and even death.
The age at which girls are made to undergo FGC also varies from region-to-region. In Amhara and in some parts of Afar, it is done during the first 10 days of life. In Somali, Afar and Oromia, girls are subjected to FGC between the ages of seven and nine, or just before marriage between the ages of 15 and 17. The type of FGC practised in SNNPR, is a form of excision in which the vagina is narrowed and the clitoris removed. This procedure can result in infections and hemorrhaging. When the girls grow up, the resultant scarring can tear, causing complications during labour.
According to government figures, approximately 54 per cent of girls in SNNPR are subjected to FGC. The rate is even higher in other regions: 92 per cent in Amhara, 96 per cent in Afar, 99 per cent Oromia and 100 per cent in Somali.
Manyahlishal Madebo, head of the Wolaita Sodo Zone Women’s Affairs Office and a lawyer by training, confirms that the practice is extremely painful and dangerous since no anaesthetic and antibiotics are used during the procedure.
“As a result of circumcision, they can not go to school,” says Madebo. “It happens in August and September. When they fail to register, they can’t go to school. If they are not circumcised, their friends insult them so they want to be circumcised. We [explain to] families that it is harmful. [Families and communities] say ‘it’s our culture, our tradition,’ [but] society must accept it’s harmful to them.”
UNICEF believes that FGC is a fundamental violation of girls’ rights and throughout Africa is working with government partners to bring about grassroots change. “The Government, religious leaders, professionals, the whole society must be committed,” says Tabeyin. “Only with constant teaching and society’s support, can we stop it.”
Teacher training and sensitization workshops have resulted in dramatic reversals in attitude among participants, particularly where videos on FGC have been screened. In one community, a Muslim religious leader broke with tradition after taking part in a workshop and allowed his daughter to get married uncircumcised. Similarly, several workers from regional agricultural bureaus have got married without having their wives undergo FGC.
“We must train people from the grassroots [level] that these harmful traditional practices can be stopped. These harmful traditional practices impact women and children. Together we are striving to protect women’s and children’s rights,” says Asmake Major, a training officer for the Regional Women’s Affairs Office in Awassa.
With support from UNICEF, the Regional Women’s Affairs Office has trained more than 10,000 people to work in the community to educate their peers about the physical, psychological and emotional impact of FGC in an effort to stop the practice.
Almaz Mulugeta, chairwoman of the Women’s Association in Wolaita Sodo, says that whenever there is a social gathering, she takes the opportunity to teach women about the dangers of female genital mutilation.
“When there is a wedding ceremony and the women are chopping the onions for the feast, I tell them. When there are funerals, I talk to them,” she says. “Unless women are organized, we will never eradicate this problem.”
*Note: Not their real names