Young girls in the Kembata zone of southern Ethiopia are starting their meeting with three claps – each one a symbolic call to stop female genital mutilation.
Belaynesh Girma, a community volunteer in her home village of Mesafie, leads the meeting, teaching about 50 uncircumcised girls about the risks of the procedure. The 23-year-old was herself cut at the age of 16.
"I am circumcised," she says. "After the fact, I have learned that this is a harmful practice. It is too late for me, but I am teaching others so they can be saved."
Changing perceptions of female circumcision
Men are also included in Belaynesh’s group, to increase their understanding and support for a women's decision not to undergo the procedure. Many of them have resisted change in the past. Some believe it discourages sexual relations before marriage, and even rape.
"The community looked down upon uncut girls," Belaynesh says. "That is when we decided to involve all the uncut girls in the village in community development activities such as planting trees and raising funds for students who cannot afford to buy pens and pencils.”
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is one of the factors contributing to Ethiopia’s high maternal mortality rate, according to the National Committee on Traditional Harmful Practices in Addis Ababa. Women who undergo the practice are also more likely to experience problems bearing children. FGM often leads to prolonged labor and bleeding, and may require caesarean section. It can also cause infertility.
In addition, babies born under such circumstances are twice as likely to die during and immediately after birth, according to a recent UN report. The World Health Organization says the infant death rate is 15% to 55% higher among those born to mothers who have FGM.
Belaynesh says that over time, the community’s mentality towards female circumcision has changed.
“I would rather eat this corn or starve”
The change began when a woman born in the area launched a campaign against FGM. Bogalech Gebre, who was educated in the United States, founded an NGO that raised awareness in the Kembata and Hadiya areas. Ten years later, tens of thousands of uncut girls gather annually to celebrate in the local football stadium.
Evidence of this new mindset is the village’s ritual surgeon. Kemisie Ashebo once circumcised all the village girls in Mesafie, including Belaynesh. She is now a student and activist working to stop the practice.
"Before I was aware and given education, I circumcised all the village girls, including my own. I started when I was young," Kemisie says.
"Cutting young girls has been our culture for centuries. People call me to come to their home for what was an important ritual in our culture. I circumcise young girls and used to earn my living from that."
Now that she no longer performs circumcisions, Kemisie has lost a major source of income for her family. The impact on her lifestyle is evident as she hands her granddaughter a handful of fried corn for lunch and uses the rest for herself – she has lost all her teeth and must grind the corn down to a fine powder.
"This is the end of it," Kemisie says, washing the corn down with coffee. "This is it. I would rather eat this corn or starve than doing something that God hates, the community is against and the government outlawed. I had been through a lot. They arrested me and made me promise not to cut any girls."
Kemisie says she circumcised girls, including her own, because she did not know about the harm it could do. Her family learned the hard way. Her step daughter, who was cut, had to have a caesarean section.
Celebrating with the community
The change in attitudes toward female circumcision can also be seen some 20 kilometers away in the town of Adillo, where 18-year-old Hiwot Desalegn is getting married. She is uncut.
In 2002 when the first uncut girl in the area was married, her own family did not even attend the wedding. But time, and the effectiveness of awareness-raising campaigns that originated from within the community, have changed that thinking. Hiwot's wedding in Adillo is attended by all family members and celebrated by the community.
Not every region in Ethiopia has seen such a drastic change in thinking. In Afar, Wollo and Somali regions, female genital cutting still continues. And every year, nearly three million girls face the risk of being circumcised.
This is part 1 of our 15 part series, A Healthy Start: On the Frontlines of Maternal and Infant Care in Africa