“Change takes commitment, not a miracle.”
Hidden away in the Africa section of the BBC news website yesterday there was a wonderful article about a woman who is trying to make the world a better place.
Her name is Bogaletch Gebre and this week she was awarded the King Baudouin African Development Prize in recognition for her work in women’s rights, specifically her campaigning to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Ethiopia.
Also known as female circumcision, female genital mutilation is practised mainly in communities in Africa and the Middle East. It is the deliberate, non-medical removal or cutting of female genitalia and is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl “properly”, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. In many communities it is also believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts.
It is usually carried out by local traditional practitioners without anaesthesia, using instruments such as knives, scissors and razors and causes long-term severe health problems, such as infertility, childbirth complications, cysts, recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections – not to mention the short-term effects such as severe pain, shock and haemorrhaging.
Bogaletch Gebre is herself a victim of female genital mutilation. She doesn’t know when she was born but believes it was sometime in the 1950s in Kembatta, Ethiopia, a region where FGM was endemic. At the age of 12 she was subjected to brutal FGM and also lost one of her sisters to the practice.
Coming from an area where girls were largely uneducated, Gebre decided to run away to a missionary school and became the first girl from her village to receive a primary education. She won a scholarship to attend high school in Addis Ababa then moved to Jerusalem to study Microbiology and this led on to a scholarship at the University of Massachusetts.
Whilst studying for her PhD in Epidemiology in Los Angeles, she set up a charity called Development Through Education and started running marathons to raise money. In total, she raised $26,000 which was spent on books that were sent to universities and schools in Ethiopia.
Not long after this, Gebre returned home with $5,000 in her pocket and a dream. Along with her sister, Fikirte, she founded the Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma (KMG) group with the aim of increasing the trust of the elders in communities where FGM is endemic. They hoped that by developing a dialogue with them and questioning their practices, they might be able to make an impact and lower the rate of FGM.
Through her hard work with the elders, she came to realise that many of them did not know where FGM originated and that it was not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran.
“For social change, you must go to the people, to really listen to them and learn from them. It is all about commitment. As a young girl when I spoke to elders, I had to look at their feet, not their faces. As an adult, I stood in front of a congregation of 800 men, women and children. I said female genital mutilation is not prescribed in the Bible or the Koran. So where did the practice come from?”
Gebre’s dedication has paid of because in just ten years of working with the communities, she has managed to lower the incidence of female genital mutilation from 100% to less than 3% in newborn girls – an extraordinary achievement.
Gebre hopes the King Baudouin prize will bring more attention to the issue of women’s rights in Africa. “Today only 1% of all aid that goes to African countries goes to women, just 1%. Yet we are half the population in every country if not more,” she said.
“We started in four districts and now we are in 700. We have developed tools and approaches to how can we eliminate not only FGM but gender inequality. We want a woman to be recognised as a person with human value, with dignity, who can hope and think,” she said.
A short documentary about Bogaletch
Female Genital Mutilation: The facts
Key facts about female genital mutilation from the World Health Organisation (WHO):
- Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
- The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
- Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
- About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
- FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
- In Africa an estimated 101 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
- FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.
How you can help:
Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma – KMG has 106 employees and 6,000 volunteers. The organisation is present in 700 villages and about 2.5 million people are touched by its action. Find out more at http://kmg-ethiopia.org/
FORWARD – A charity dedicated to advancing and safeguarding the sexual and reproductive health and rights of African girls and women. Find out more here: http://www.forwarduk.org.uk/about. To donate, please click here.