News / Africa

Ethiopian Activist Recognized for Fight Against Female Genital Mutilation

Masai girl holds protest sign during anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) run in Kilgoris, KenyaMasai girl holds protest sign during anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) run in Kilgoris, Kenya
Masai girl holds protest sign during anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) run in Kilgoris, Kenya
Masai girl holds protest sign during anti-Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) run in Kilgoris, Kenya
Selah Hennessy

An Ethiopian activist who has worked to support women’s rights and battle female genital mutilation has been awarded an international prize in Europe.

Bogaletch Gebre founded Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Tope in the 1990s. The organization’s name translates as Kembatti Women Stand Together.

The group has a unique approach to tackling women’s rights in Bogaletch’s home country, Ethiopia.

The principle, she says, is that going into rural areas and telling people what to do will not work. Instead, the organization facilitates conversations, with community leaders joining together to reach consensus over issues that impact the community.

She says HIV/AIDS is an important entry point into broader discussions about practices that harm women.

Her organization provides basic information -- including, for example, that HIV is transmitted by blood. From there the conversation might develop into one about the risks linked to genital mutilation.

"The fact that the circumciser or traditional surgeon cuts girls with one blade, three, four, five girls at a time, and without sterilization, and also she does not wash her hands properly -- the possibility if one girl is infected that the rest of the girls will be infected, we start with that," Bogaletch said.

From there, she says, a conversation will develop about the causes, the reasons why female genital mutilation is done. She says when the question "Why are we mutilating?" is posed, the community typically has a long list of reasons.

"The community starts: 'well this, this, and this are the reasons.' But then, these reasons are not in the bible. It is not part of our culture. It is not in the Quran. And as Christians and Muslims and people who fear God, how can we destroy something God has created? That reasoning comes," Bogaletch said.

Female genital mutilation, or FGM, typically involves removing the clitoris and can lead to bleeding, infections and childbirth problems.

Data released by the United Nations earlier this year shows that the practice is declining in Africa and the Middle East.

Bogaletch says for most communities she works with, making the decision to end cutting is a long process. Practices that have been entrenched for many generations, she says, take a long time to break.

But in the areas where her organization has worked, it’s credited with bringing female circumcision on pre-adolescents down from 100 percent to 3 percent in just 10 years. Other international organizations, including U.N. groups, are hoping to replicate the approach elsewhere in Africa.

Bogaletch was born in Ethiopia and was the first girl in her area to finish primary school. She later went to university in Jerusalem to study microbiology and then on to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the United States.

Her organization takes a holistic approach that tries to address a whole range of issues.

"As a scientist you start thinking scientifically about the interconnectedness of things. You have to link the ecological problems, the economic problems, the social problems and address their day-to-day life in their area," Bogaletch said.

The Belgium-based King Baudouin Foundation says it awarded Bogaletch Gebre the prize, which is worth almost $600,000, because of her "innovative" campaign to end FGM.

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