The Afar region in northern Ethiopia is known for its incredible landscape, its scorching heat – and a high incidence of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Youth For Change Ethiopia’s Kiram visited Afar to speak to young women about how the practice has affected them, and the prospects for change.
In Ethiopia, well known for its traditional way of communication and sharing information called – Dagu – almost all the Afar community is Islam by religion. Pastoralist by traditional way of lifestyle, the Afar community lives in one of the harshest desert in the world – north eastern Ethiopia.
In Afar Region, an alarming 60 percent of girls under the age of 14 years are subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), which places the region second after Somali of Ethiopia, according to the national Welfare and Monitoring Survey, 2011.
It's in Afar that girls are subjected to the most extreme form of the practice – Type 3 FGM, infibulation – which involves total cutting of the genitalia followed by stitching even when they are a just few days old.
Here is where the Youth For Change Ethiopia team is working to put efforts.
Zehara, 18, was infibulated at just 7 days of age. She says Afar believes that all girls have to be infibulated, and she is part of that story too. “It's been tough to grow as a girl here, unable to pass menstruation and urine properly due to the genital infibulation – it burns and is painful.”
Now at her grade 11, upon completing her high school study next year Zehara wants to go to medical school. “I want to be a doctor, Inshallah" she says. “Because I have high concern over the harmful traditional practice here and I want to be part of the fight against it”. She believes that having medical background will help empower her to work towards the abandonment of the practice.
Meanwhile, I challenged Zehara if she has doubt on the issue becoming a big concern in her community, given that her mother was infibulated but gave birth to her, and is now living as normal. “You know what,” stressed Zehara, “they (mothers) all know how this traditional practice affected their whole life but it still amazes me why they are repeating the same problem on us. I can see that they're suffering a lot as they become older.”
“I don’t know what the real understanding our mothers have these days about the practice, but I see that they are tied to the tradition they were raised in.”
Of her opinion toward FGM Zehara, however, said her mother is on her side but her father is doubtful – in his opinion, “a girl has to be infibulated, otherwise she will behave badly on sexual matters and lose her dignity.”
"Wherever I go, it's very rare to find unmutilated girls"
In Semera, the new capital of Afar Regional State, the morning sun was burning like it was falling down there. As I finished my conversation with Zehara, wishing her all the best of her future academia and our common mission, I caught an eye from quite shy girl who I couldn’t assume to be more than 17 years old.
Her name is Nejat, ranked 4th at grade 7 and just enrolled at grade 8 preparing for the national high school entrance exams - she wants to be an engineer. She was shy, but keen to share her story too.
Nejat was also infibulated at 7 days of age. Now studying in Semera, but born in Asaita (the late capital of Afar), Nejat has much experience of traveling to many places with her family, and changing schools in the region. She says “wherever I've traveled it's very rare to find unmutilated girls, and I learned that there are many bad things around menstruation and mothers giving birth that happen due to female genital mutilation and the cutting in our tradition.”
These days women are facing fistula cases even at institutional delivery, because they've been infibulated and cannot deliver easily. After giving birth, women in Afar will be stitched and tied up for up to 40 days for the stitches to heal. Psychologically this has a much greater impact on girls that are stitched than none-stitched ones.
Tackling FGM in Afar region
Despite steady reduction in Afar’s FGM rates, according to Halima Mohamed, Director of Semera Girls’ School there “still remains a lot to do in reducing the practice.” She run students clubs for young people aged from 10 to 19 which are promoting to end FGM/C.
Of the factors contributing to the practice in Afar the most significant seems to be the desire to control women’s sexuality, which has a strong and positive correlation with the social norm, religion and traditional values. Due to the religious belief in the Afar community, improvements have seen some change from severe cutting to a tiny cut which because it's seen as ‘Sunna - but this still isn't enough.
We need joint effort against the practice in general. Halima told me that, “schools and their clubs have to be engaged on the issue.” We are ready to join hands with any organisations that want to help end FGM – together, we can improve the lives of women and girls worldwide.
For more info on Afar region, check out this fantastic video from Girl Effect Ethiopia: