By Mona Eltahawy
Thursday, January 9, 2003
A young Ethiopian couple's wedding became a demonstration against female genital mutilation. Also: The Spanish government has launched a project to protect African immigrants from the practice.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--When Genet Girma and Addisie Abosie got married in Kembatta, Ethiopia, they did the unthinkable in their community. Genet wore a placard saying "I am not circumcised, learn from me" and her groom wore a matching one that said "I am very happy to be marrying an uncircumcised woman."
During a recent visit here, Genet talked about being the first known woman in Kembatta to marry in public who had refused the mutilation to her genitals that is considered a rite ofpassage for all girls and young women in that part of Ethiopia. Between the ages of 16 and 18, young women in that region are subjected to what is known as step-two female genital mutilation: the clitoris, as well as the inner and outer labia, is removed. This type of mutilation is also known as excision.
Before her wedding last year, Genet explained, she ran away from home rather than undergo the ordeal. Both her family and that of Addisie rejected the young couple and would not attend their wedding. Because of Genet and Addisie's courage in so openly confronting the practice, some 2,000 other people did attend the ceremony however, which was also televised and covered extensively in Ethiopia's main newspaper. Their families have only recently accepted the couple, who are expecting their first child.
Genet and Addisie were in the United States recently as part of a tour organized by Equality Now to raise funds and highlight the work of Africa's young people who have rejected female circumcision and who are working to end it in their communities.
"They are incredibly brave," said Bogaletch Gebre, founder and director of the Kembatta Women's Self-Help Center, who accompanied the couple on their speaking tour. "What they have done is hard to describe; it's really ground-breaking, a lightning bolt.
"A girl who is not circumcised is not marriageable in Kembatta," Gebre added. "First of all, nobody even questions if you are not; it's a given that you are. But neighbors know if you are not cut because everybody knows everybody's business in rural areas. Genet was the eighth daughter in her family but the first to refuse FGM."
Since their wedding and public stand against female genital mutilation, ten other couples have followed suit.
Gebre, who herself was mutilated when she was 6 years old, was emphatic on the need for women's groups across the world to speak out against the practice and not mince words in deference to cultural relativism.
"When culture affects one's human integrity, when it violates it be it in terms of gender or in terms of ethnic group, I think that culture should be condemned because whenever one individual is affected, denied that right of whole being, denied of their integrity and human right, we're diminished as people wherever we are," Gebre said.
Accompanying the Ethiopian couple on the tour were Edna and Beatrice Kandie, two sisters from Kenya who defied their father and refused to be mutilated. Their stance led to groundbreaking legislation in their country that criminalizes female circumcision.
With the help of Kenya-based human rights activist Ken Wafula, who also took part in the U.S. speaking tour, they won a court order that forbade their father from forcing them to undergo the ritual.
"Our father was very hostile at first and we had to run away from home," Beatrice Kandie said. "Most of our friends and the whole community abandoned us because they didn't like what we were doing but they've accepted us now. Since our case, nobody in our village has been circumcised. I'm happy."
None of the Kandie sisters' four younger siblings have been mutilated. In addition, since working on their case, Wafula said he has been able to protect 17 other girls from mutilation and none of the younger girls in the Kandies' village have been subjected to the ritual.
The World Health Organization estimates that 6,000 girls a day are genitally mutilated. The least extreme form is known as clitoridectomy, which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris. The most extreme form is infibulation, which is the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a very small vaginal opening.
Doctors say genital mutilation causes lasting psychological trauma, extreme pain, chronic infections, bleeding, abscesses, tumors, urinary tract infections and infertility.
The Kandie sisters said they began to question the ritual when a pastor speaking at their church alerted them to the fact that circumcision was prescribed in the Bible for boys only. Female genital mutilation is practiced in communities of different faiths.
The process took a little longer for Ethopia's Genet and Addisie. Speaking through an interpreter, Genet said that whenever her mother insisted that she succumb to the ritual, she put her off by saying she would do so after she finished her education. Both she and Addisie learned of the harmful effects of female circumcision through the educational and advocacy work of the Kembatta Women's Center at their school.
They said they were able to use the information the center gave them to make the link between female circumcision and their respective mothers' difficulty in giving birth. Several years before he got married, Addisie decided that, unlike all the men in his community who took it for granted that their brides were cut, he would not expect his wife to have undergone the procedure. The turning point for him came when he attended the birth of his mother's sixth child. (She would eventually give birth 14 times, but only 11 of the children survived.)
At the time, Addisie was a teen-ager, sitting outside the room waiting for the arrival of his latest sibling. His mother's labor lasted for four days and Addisie left before the actual birth, because, he said, he could not bear to stay when he heard the traditional birth attendant ask for a blade.
A few years later he went to the same birth attendant, also a bone setter, to treat a soccer injury. He asked her why she had requested the blade all those years ago. The birth attendant told him that as a result of circumcision, his mother's genitals were scarred so badly they had lost their elasticity and the only way to help the baby out was to cut through the scar tissue.
Africa's young are beginning to have access to the type of information that permits them to question and resist the routine mutilations, said Kembatta's Gebre, despite the cultural pressures.
"We are each other's keepers" Gebre said. "We must be each other's supporters for whenever one of us is hurt or violated, all of us are violated."
Mona Eltahawy is a staff writer for Women's Enews. Her opinion pieces and commentaries have appeared in the Washington Post and The New York Times.
World Health Organization--
Gender and Women's Health Department
"Female Genital Mutilation":
MADRID, Spain (WOMENSENEWS)--A Spanish region with a large immigrant population has launched a pioneering project to protect African girls from genital mutilation, the tradition that some sub-Saharan families bring with them as they seek a new life in Europe.
The semi-autonomous Catalonia region, an economic and industrial powerhouse in northeastern Spain, has begun distributing a manual designed to help teachers, doctors, social workers and police look for telltale signs from girls who are at risk of or have suffered from genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision.
The program was launched last summer after more than a year of research by the immigration department of the Catalonia regional government, which plans to hand out 100,000 copies of the manual. Special emphasis was placed on northernmost Gerona province, where the immigrant community is composed largely of people from sub-Saharan countries in which female genital mutilation is common.
Salvador Obiols, head of the immigration department, said the goal of the program is not to alarm Spaniards or make them think horrible things of immigrants.
"This document aims only, and I mean only, to dissuade immigrants from the practice," Obiols said. "The point is to make people aware that this should not be done because it is illegal and it is a barbarity."
-- Daniel Wools is a journalist in Madrid.