Ten years ago, Tadelech Ermias, 23, defied her family’s wishes and endured ridicule in her community over her decision to get married without having undergone female genital mutilation (FGM).
“It was inconceivable then for a girl to get married without being cut,” she says.
She gives credit to her husband for his support in ensuring their marriage went ahead, after her family refused to arrange the wedding for her. She also takes solace in the fact that she had no complications when she gave birth to her child, a year after she married.
Ms. Ermias says she owes her determination to take a stand against FGM to her participation in the uncut girls’ club, which was supported by a local non-government organization, KMG-Ethiopia.
“I knew only that FGM was a customary practice in my community. The teachings I received in discussions on the harms of FGM were revealing to me, and (so) I got married uncut,” Ms. Ermias says. They also discussed the harmful effects of child marriage, abduction (a ‘marriage’ imposed by force on a girl and her parents) and other harmful practices.
Ms. Ermias became an example to girls in her community for entering marriage without enduring FGM. In her community and many others in Ethiopia, the practice of FGM is used as a rite of passage to adulthood.
She has since worked relentlessly to convince other girls not to get cut and has contributed to around 40 women getting married without undergoing FGM.
She is currently the coordinator of a forum that brings together uncut unmarried girls and married women in her district to create awareness of the harms of FGM, and to serve as a springboard to bring about the desired changes in communities.
Joint programme to end FGM
Domboya is one of 15 districts in the Southern Region of Ethiopia in which Phase III of the Joint UNFPA-UNICEF Programme for the Accelerated Abandonment of FGM is currently being implemented through KMG-Ethiopia, Norwegian Church Aid, and the Bureaus of Justice and Women and Children Affairs of the Southern Region. The programme has a strong social mobilization component, with the aim of improving community knowledge, attitude and practice; and enhancing legal response and service provision, to deter the practice as well as mitigate its impact.
Promoting discussions among women and men, and across generations, the Joint Programme encourages communities to raise the problem, identify challenges and define solutions – stimulating positive social change in the process.
Kembatta Zone, in which Domboya District is located, is one of the areas that has achieved remarkable results in lowering the country’s very high prevalence of FGM. Despite these successes, around 65 per cent of Ethiopian women aged 15 to 49 years have been subjected to FGM, according to the 2016 Demographic and Health Survey.
While FGM is carried out at an early age in some regions in the country, in many communities, such as Ms. Ermias’s, the practice is a rite of passage to adulthood.
“We are doing anti-FGM work, coordinating with other community structures, law enforcement bodies and the local administration, in all 20 localities in our district,” says Ms. Ermias. Community discussions, or conversations, are held twice a month. They focus on the fight against FGM and other forms of gender-based violence that are rampant in the area.
A community structure that she is working with closely in the fight against FGM and other harmful practices is the Gezzima Group, a self-help structure in the Kembatta community. They teach communities about harmful practices and gender-based violence, according to Tagesech Bishe, Gezzima Group coordinator for Domboya District.
The Gezzima Group is increasingly being used to create social awareness and to mobilize people in the fight against FGM and other harmful practices, as part of the anti-harmful practices committee organized from locality to zonal administration levels. The committee consists of community structures, including the Uncut Girls’ Club and Gezzima Group, law enforcement bodies, the local administration and sector offices.
Gains in ending FGM are under threat
The commendable results registered in Domboya and other districts in Kembatta Zone in recent years have, however, been threatened on a number of fronts, including the more recent trend of medicalization of FGM and a rise in the incidence of gender-based violence.
The Joint Programme on FGM is working in earnest to address these challenges, says Admasu Mentre, Social Service Programme Officer with KMG-Ethiopia and focal person for the joint programme. The programme has adopted a two-pronged approach of school-level interventions and community mobilization, which underlines the importance of promoting community ownership to sustain the gains made.
The undoing of the tradition of FGM is heavily dependent on the work and resolve of community actors.
Says Gezzima Group coordinator, Tagesech Bishe: “I feel that we are saving girls from the ordeal that I and other older women went through due to FGM.” And the community is ready to sustain the positive changes that have come about, even if support to the programme comes to an end, she stresses.
Amazingly, Ms. Ermias undertakes this voluntary work while being employed as a civil servant and pursuing a college education, from which she will be graduating this year. She is also raising her child single-handedly as her husband has been working abroad for the past eight years.
The work they are doing to end FGM is important for saving the lives of women and girls and, thankfully, things are changing for the better due to raised awareness in the community, she says. But she admits that it is not easy.
“We are working against all odds. We cover a lot of ground. Some of the localities are remote and inaccessible to transportation, which makes our work even more challenging,” she says. The police are assisting with bringing violators to justice, as FGM has been criminalized and is punishable by imprisonment.
“Our hard work has paid dividends as we are seeing tangible results,” she says.
Source: Abraham Gelaw – UNFPA