At least 200 million women alive today in 30 countries have been subjected to the painful procedure known as female genital mutilation, a practice the U.N. says is deeply rooted in tradition in some cultures. About half of those women come from Egypt, Somalia and Ethiopia.
But in Ethiopia, the nonprofit organization KMG has made major progress against the practice. KMG began educating people about the harmful effects of female genital mutilation in the southern region of Kembatta-Tembaro in 1998.
In 1999, almost 97 percent of the people favored FGM in Kembatta-Tembaro, an area of about 680,000 people, according to a UNICEF study. By 2008, less than 5 percent supported the practice.
And in Ethiopia as a whole, 74 percent of women and girls were mutilated out of a population of 94 million, according to 2005 statistics. A decade later, national prevalence of FGM had dropped to 65 percent, according to a 2016 government report. The United Nations Population Fund credits KMG with a big reduction in FGM.
Elders educated first
Beyebo Eresado, a 50-year-old farmer and village elder, says that at first, he did not believe what he heard.
“No, we’ve been doing it a long time,” he said. “It can’t be harmful. It’s our culture. We’re doing it to benefit the girl.”
The procedure can cause hemorrhaging, scarring, infections and psychological trauma.
In Kembatta, the practice commonly took the form of cutting off the clitoris and the inner and outer labia. This can cause major health problems, especially during childbirth. Eresado estimated it took four years for his community to start changing its attitude toward FGM. As a village elder whose opinion is respected, he played an important role.
The shift happened through the work of KMG. The core of its work is holding community conversations in groups of 50, including people from all walks of life — men and women, young and old, elders and laborers. KMG facilitators guide regular meetings where people discuss issues until they reach consensus.
When KMG started out, issues such as women’s rights were abstract concepts to struggling poor people. So, it addressed day-to-day needs, such as repairing broken bridges and addressing HIV and AIDS. Over time, even taboo subjects such as FGM and gender violence were discussed openly.
KMG and its founder
KMG was founded by 63-year-old Bogaletch Gebre, who grew up in Kembatta-Tembaro and was cut as a girl. During her childhood, girls were not expected to go to school. Gebre, however, went on to study biology at universities in Israel and in the state of Massachusetts in the United States as a Fulbright Fellow.
Gebre says including people in community conversations and letting them reach their own conclusions was crucial in changing deeply rooted practices.
“We don’t dictate, we just discuss,” Gebre said. “We facilitate. We allow them to talk. In the conversation nobody is wrong, nobody is right, nobody has better knowledge than the other. Every single one has spoken in that group has a value. There’s no judgment. That makes people comfortable to speak their mind. Women for the first time learn that they have something of value that people listen to them.”
People began to learn the health risks of FGM. And they learned there is no religious basis for it in the Bible or Quran.
Those ideas were absorbed by the next generation of women and men.
Merhun Abebe, 18, was a boy when KMG started working in Kembatta. He says he remembers community conversations about FGM.
“Now the community has accepted the change,” he said. “KMG has been successful because it is working closely with society. They are not coming in and saying, ‘Do this; don’t do that.’ They just facilitate the community to identify its own problem, discuss the problem and provide solution.”
KMG has since expanded and most of its work is now outside Kembatta in neighboring regions. Today, nearly 4 million people benefit from KMG and thousands of Ethiopian females have been spared.
This story was produced with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting