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.

See Slideshow, "Nomadic Girls and Women in Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert"

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.

School Mistress Has Better Stats

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.

Naedeti–"Let’s Stop It"–aired on  the National Service of Radio Ethiopia, is one of the broadcasts confirming women’s own experiences and observations.

"We witnessed circumcised mothers dying during childbirth," said Mohamed. "The ones who are not circumcised delivered very easily. So we understood."

See Slideshow, "Nomadic Girls and Women in Ethiopia’s Danakil Desert"

Even though many Afari men still consider the practice a religious duty and shun girls who do not undergo it, Mohamed said the youngest girls in her community are being spared now.

A Vocal Opponent

A vocal local opponent of female genital mutilation is Aisha Omar, who waved a Women’s eNews reporter into her hut when she heard a journalist was near by.

"During our time it was our culture to circumcise, we didn’t have a choice," Omar told Women’s eNews. "But circumcision is no longer practiced here. Radio and TV told us not to. Now we know the dangers."

The thin mother of four tackles the taboo topic head-on in her hut. Female neighbors trickle in and listen wordlessly to her warnings against female genital mutilation as crossed-armed husbands hover at the doorway.

The excruciating experience of going through labor and ongoing health ramifications played a key role in Omar’s decision to oppose a long-standing tradition and not let her two daughters undergo the cutting.

"I experienced the greatest pain when about to give birth," Omar said. "Now I have kidney problems and pains similar to yellow fever."

The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front–locally known as Shabiyya–took Omar’s husband 10 years ago. She says she survived from livestock, camels and goats, all sold or eaten over the years with the exception of a single black and white goat still standing in her garden.

She pins hopes of a brighter future on her daughters’ education.

"If girls grow up educated they will help their parents and the government," she said. "They will live a better life than in the past."

Remote Region

Even with the recent improvements here for girls, however, opportunities still appear limited in a region that the Afar have fought to keep autonomous from Ethiopia’s government.

President Meles Zenawi, who recently won what the United States has called sham elections, is the first leader to have a good relationship with this community since the country’s independence.

Trucks rigged up for mineral extraction come and go here, along with camel caravans traveling to collect salt from Lake Assal, 510 meters below sea level. These are the main forms of mobility in a harsh landscape of spitting volcanoes and regular earthquakes.

Afari women, with their dark skin, golden nose rings and dramatic color wraps, are a sight rivaling the sun-scorched salt flats and bubbling sulfur deposits of Dallol, Africa’s lowest point.

Banned from boarding vehicles, some travel all day by foot to fetch water from government-built pumps. The profits of tourism sidestep them almost entirely.

"All the cash goes to the men," Christos Michalilidis, who founded Pangeans Safari alongside his wife Liza Andreous, told Women’s eNews.

Adventure tourism mainly puts cash in the hands of AK-47-armed young men who act as safari escorts. Male village elders also get paid for scouting out paths through brush, sand dunes, volcanic pebbles and mud banks created by unseasonal flash floods.

"Tourists give us pens and books, watches and clothes," said Mohamed, the headmistress. "We are in such a hard place that we need medication and water too. But nobody speaks to us to know our needs."

Dominique Soguel is Women’s eNews Arabic editor and a contributing correspondent. She traveled on vacation to the Danakil Desert with Pangeans Safari in May 2010.

For more information:

Female Genital Mutilation: Cutting/Data and Trends: