Champions of Afar: women who reject FGM

On March 2016 Youth For Change Ethiopia, in collaboration with the Afar region Women and Children Affairs Bureau, held a celebration of International Women’s Day marking the team’s ongoing effort to positively change the situation in the region. Youth For Change Ethiopia’s Kiram spoke to the three women dubbed the ‘Champions of Afar’, who have rejected performing FGM. These exemplary women, along with two mothers who refused to mutilate their girls, were recognized as leaders in the abandonment of the deep routed traditional practice in the region.

Now, as a result of ours and other initiatives, new stories are emerging in the fight against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Afar community of north-eastern Ethiopia, where FGM is still a socially entrenched harmful traditional practice. Afar currently has the second highest FGM rate in Ethiopia.

To support the effort to tackle FGM/C in the area, Youth For Change Ethiopia has been in search of potential role models, especially those women coming out and rejecting the practice. Going against the long shared tradition in Afar community, three women who used to perform Female Genital Mutilation for many years have now stepped forward as champions.

Victims of the tradition themselves, these women – who have a personal understanding about the issue - decided to come out and confess to the health and social impacts of FGM. These women used to perform the practice, not for any kind of fee but to serve the rituals as part of the tradition.

Aysha Dibleka, Hadi Mohammed and Rouqiya Omer speak how they come out to join the effort which was not an easy step to be taken from their community perspective.

Aysha Dibleka, 80, says female genital mutilation and stitching practices are mainly sponsored by older community members, saying that ‘man prefers when sexual organ of a woman and the ‘gate of his house’ is narrower’.

Before she rejected performing FGM, Aysha mutilated girls in her neighborhood for more than 20 years. “I used to mutilate a girl 7 days after she was born,” she said, adding that “as I start to question the issue I have seen enough woman in my neighborhood highly bleeding when giving birth, and after that it becomes very painful for her to urinate.”

“If a woman give birth to ten children, this means ten times of cutting and stitching with the blade traditional birth attendants use to open her genitalia to bring the baby out.” 

“But it was not that easy for me to stop performing mutilation, even when discussions were happening among women whether or not to stop the practice,” tells Aysha.  

Perhaps the youngest woman in the community to perform FGM, Rouqiya Omer is 35 years old from Asaita area. She learned how to perform mutilation from elder women as part of the community ritual.  “I used to perform the harshest kind of mutilation (Type 4) which ended with stitching the genitalia of a girl,” she said.

“Once a child girl is born in the neighborhood we rush for mutilation,” confesses Rouqiya.

She said that she’d noticed health complications affecting women mainly due to mutilation. “When women start to give birth at health facilities it was at that point I started to figure out the effect of mutilation from the health practitioners.”

Hands that once held a blade, now work to end FGM

Part of this fascinating story is Hadi Mohammed, a woman who used to perform FGM but is now Head of Dubti Woreda (small district) Women and Children Affairs Bureau. Although Hadi didn’t perform FGM for a long time, she has committed her full life to end FGM because she says she has undergone the all-out the pain of mutilation.

“(I’m motivated) mainly by what I experienced in my own life. I have suffered a lot while giving birth.” According to Hadi, once a girl is mutilated and stitched she will face severe pain during sexual intercourse upon her marriage which she would be ashamed to come out and speak her that pain. 

“When I decided to take my own way it was difficult to continue with my spouse then we decided to divorce,” shares Hadi speaking how she started her engagement with FGM.    

The law and the Deen

Deen is an Arabic word for religion or faith which according to the teaching of Islam it means spiritual which does not necessarily mean religious. Also, the word Deen has been used in the Qur’an in various meanings, among which it is also to means honor, rulership, or subordination, obedience, slavery, servitude and subjection, while on the other meaning it has been used as to account, to give judgment, and dispense reward and punishment of actions

 “The Deen has already declared FGM as it is Haram (forbidden), and that is what I am telling those women in my Woreda but there should be also serious legal measures against those who keep performing FGM,” said Hadi.

Both federal and regional laws banning FGM have been already proclaimed by the government and these women are well aware of the legal punishment they could have faced for practicing FGM - but one thing they all agreed is that in their community the “Deen” has better place to convince the societies especially toward those who still perform FGM in secret.  

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