By Dominique Soguel
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Nomadic girls in the Danakil Desert of Ethiopia often skip school to fetch and carry water. But in one settled pocket, girls are going to school and mothers in the past two years have begun heeding radio warnings on female genital mutilation.
DALLOL, Ethiopia (WOMENSENEWS)--The schoolmaster at Kursawat, a rural area in the Afar region of Ethiopia, is struggling to bring awareness of the benefits of girl education and the risks of female genital mutilation.
Ethiopia outlawed female genital mutilation in 2004 but the practice is deeply rooted and nearly universal in the Afar and Somali regions. In 2005 a government health survey found that 74 percent of girls and women nationwide had undergone the ritual cutting.
"Circumcision is still going on here," Schoolmaster Kadesang Fasile told Women's eNews. "Most of the Afar are nomads so they can't be reached through educational broadcasts."
The Afar is a collection of itinerant pastoralist tribes living in the Danakil Desert, in northeast Ethiopia, toward the border with Eritrea. Nicknamed "Hell on Earth," the desert claims the world record for the highest average annual temperature in an inhabited location: 94 F. Average annual rainfall is less than eight inches.
There are 500 nomadic households in Fasile's school district and families often relocate without regard to the school calendar. The school--the only cement structure in the area, more than one hour away from the nearest paved road--sees an annual dropout rate of between 20 and 30 percent. Mothers and fathers in the community, says Fasile, see a cultural threat in female education.
"If a woman is educated and succeeds, she will live for herself and that is not permitted," said Fasile. "Here the woman fetches water."
But harsh gender attitudes are starting to soften in other pockets of the Afar region.
At nearby Hamed Ela, a community where the population is more settled--thanks to work opportunities for men in adventure tourism and resource extraction--radio broadcasts about the dangers of female genital mutilation appear to be changing the long-held custom.
Girls' school attendance is also dramatically higher.
Khalima Mohamed, age 40, is head mistress at the school in Hamed Ela, about 200 rough and roadless kilometers away from the Kursawat school run by Fasile.
Her school has four teachers and 102 schoolchildren between ages 6 and 15. There are 52 boys and 50 girls attending the school, a rare case of gender parity in this remote region, best explained by the more settled life of this community and the presence of a female head teacher.
Every girl in the school has undergone genital mutilation, Mohamed said. But the practice has decreased for the youngest girls here due to short radio spots provided to local stations that broadcast to schools and general audiences.
Nongovernmental groups have been disseminating the public service announcements as part of a national zero-tolerance campaign since 1995, but the message took a long time to reach Hamed Ela.