A family’s affair

Role play in Ethiopia

By Patricia Vermeulen*

The International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation is a global campaign held on February 6 to stop genital mutilation to girls and women. Ethiopia is the country where FGM is most prevalent, with a calculated 23.8 million girls and women having undergone the ritual. In Northern Ethiopia, Afar, girls can be cut up to the 8th day after birth and it is considered a family’s private affair.

The story of a circumciser

Miss Umuna Udena is a 42 year old pastoralist woman who lives in Asgefen Kebele of Kumame district in zone 5 of the Afar National Regional state in Ethiopia. She is a Traditional Birth Attendant and a respected and well known woman in her community. She also used to work as circumciser.

“On one side, I have been positively helping pregnant mothers during labor to safely deliver their baby and on the other hand I circumcised girls for more than 20 years. Almost all girls and women in my village in the age range of 12-30 were circumcised by me”.

She said that their religious leaders and clan leaders have been teaching from generation to generation that circumcision was a religious requirement. She believed and respected the words of her leader because of traditional values and norms.

She used to believe that it was normal and healthy for girls to undergo circumcision. ”I know how girls suffered during circumcision. The soft flesh was cut with a traditional blade”. She also remembers finding it very difficult and painful to conduct the circumcision of girls, many of whom were struggling to escape and became unconscious due to the pain and excessive bleeding. A number of adolescent girls in her community suffer from very painful problems with urinating. Working also as traditional birth attendant, she states: ”It is hard to explain how pregnant women were suffering during labor, I do not know how many women lost their lives in our region”.

Umuna continued her circumcision work until Amref started working in Kebele. She explained that she participated in a training on safe and clean delivery for the first time three years ago. “At that time I was very curious about knowing new things and I participated in all the meetings and discussions. When we discussed the challenges women face and how they suffer from harmful traditional practices, I started to question the circumcision.” Uma also attended a regional level workshop that was organized by the regional government and Amref. During this meeting religious leaders started to teach that religion stands for truth, justice and a wholesome life for all people and they explained that “The FGC practice was completely forbidden in our religion because our god did not permit it in the Koran”.

Finally, Umuna said “currently, Alhamdulillah, I have abandoned the circumcision and I am advocating together with health extension workers, mother coordinators and other trained community members that this practice will be abandoned also by other circumciser not only in our Kebele but also in our district. I am now only engaged in promoting safe and clean delivery at Asgefen Health Center by referring pregnant women to the health facility so that maternal death is reduced in my community”.

Reasons for practicing FGM in Ethiopia

FGM is widespread across Ethiopia and is carried out in the majority of regions and ethnic groups, with the lowest rate of 27.1% in Gambela (DHS 2005) and the highest rate of 91.6% in the Afar region (DHS 2005). In Northern Ethiopia, Afar, girls can be cut up to the 8th day after birth and it is considered a family’s private affair. After the procedure the labia majora, the larger outer folds of the vulva, are held together with thorns and a paste from various traditional herbs is applied to the wound. When a girl survives this ritual, her vagina is completely closed with the exception of a tiny opening. This opening is created by the insertion of a splinter of wood or corn. On her wedding night, the girl’s wound is opened again by her groom. He has to carry out de-infibulation by making use of a double-edged dagger or another sharp instrument (EGLDAM, 2007).

Various reasons are known as to why FGM is practiced in different countries all over Africa. Respect for tradition and the ritual being a mark of cultural identity are articulated as the most common reasons to practice FGM. For example, the Daasanach consider those who are not cut, not to be a part of the ‘Dimi’ culture and another Daasanach cannot marry them.

Another reason is to prevent women from being too ‘sexy’ and too demanding on the husband for sex. Amongst the Oromo, Amhara, Tigraway, Kulo/Dawro and other ethnic groups FGM is considered necessary to suppress women’s sexuality and it is believed it also prevents premarital sex and loss of a girl’s virginity which would bring disgrace to the family.

Control by the husband or the sexual satisfaction of the husband is often named as a third reason to practice FGM. Although different ethnic groups provided different reasons, the male dominance was the main desired effect here. Other reasons named are hygienic reasons, false beliefs surrounding sexuality and childbirth, aesthetic reasons concerning the vagina, and religious requirements.

Relevant laws and policies in Ethiopia related to FGM

There have been strong social and political movements for the abolition of FGM, especially in urban areas, and the Ethiopian government has ensured a favorable legal and policy environment for change.

The Criminal Code 2005:

The Criminal Code was passed in 2005. Article 568 and 569 contain provisions on ‘circumcision’ (meaning, in this context, Types I and II FGM) and Type III infibulation respectively. In Article 568, the penalty for Type I or II FGM is from 3 months’ to 3 years’ imprisonment and a fine of no less than Birr 500 – 10,000 (approximately US$ 27 – 528) or both imprisonment and fine. Article 569 focuses on Type III infibulation and provides that, ‘Anyone if engaged in stitching the genital part of a woman shall be punished by rigorous prison term of 3 to 5 years. If the practice causes physical or health injury notwithstanding the severe punishment provided in the Penal Code, the penalty will be rigorous prison term of 5 to 10 years.’ (UN/IAC, 2009)


Some communities have passed by-laws outlawing FGM, for example, in Siraro District, West Arsi Zone, Oromia, where the African Development Aid Association (ADAA) has had a programme, including raising awareness about the national anti-FGM law, a number of communities have passed bylaws against FGM and others are contemplating adopting the same approach (Norwegian Church Aid, 2009).

Enforcement of the law

In 2012, in the Afar region, a traditional cutter and the parents of six girls were arrested, tried and sentenced. The cutter received a six-month prison sentence and the parents were fined 500 Birr (US$ 27) each. This case received wide coverage on Ethiopian television, thus acting as a deterrent and awareness-raising tool (UNICEF Annual Report, 2012). In 2011, there were reported 8 legal actions.

Creating awareness

Amref Health Africa has been working on the reduction of the prevalence of different forms of Harmful Traditional Practices (HTP) such as FGM. By working together with the African community itself, creating awareness about the dangers of FGM and educating the local population on the consequences of the practice we strive to change the high statistics named above for the better. Together with the local authorities and traditional leaders, Amref intervenes with projects to offer alternatives to the community.

Over the years we have witnessed some significant changes in the community: We were able to establish a consistent dialogue with the community figure points and local government officials in southern part of the country; We have success fully conducted an anti-HTP campaign lead by the government; And even in Afar where FGM is highly prevalent; we have been working with religious and clan leaders on implementing different projects reducing the prevalence of HTPs including FGM/C.

Finding ways to discuss sensitive subjects

‘We inspire our audiences to think about things’

Through her participation in drama productions, Samira Abdih (15) informs her schoolmates about the negative aspects of dangerous traditions such as female circumcision and too-early marriage. ‘I was terrified the first time I did it’, says Samira.

Acting in a play she wrote herself, Samira might play a mother advising her daughter not to marry young. ‘I explain to her that she is much too young to get married, and that she could face physical danger by having babies at such a young age’, says the cheerful, bubbly student in her blue and yellow school uniform, speaking on the grounds of her secondary school in Awash.

In another play, Samira plays a mother who tries to convince other women to stop circumcising their daughters. ‘We talk about serious blood loss and scarring, and about the problems that can arise later during childbirth or during sexual intercourse with their husbands.’ Samira is not circumcised herself, but she is aware of the serious implications of the practice. ‘Many women in my family and at school have been circumcised, and I am convinced that this dangerous tradition must end’, she says. In the past few years, Samira and other members of her team have had training from Amref on a range of subjects.

Naturally, Samira understands that subjects such as these are highly sensitive ones. ‘I was terrified the first time I did a play about this’, she adds. For this reason, the schoolchildren always try to include a humorous note that will help people laugh alongside the more serious segments in which audiences often listen with rapt attention. ‘We know that people’s opinions are not changed in an instant. So we ensure that issues return in different ways throughout all the productions. It is a process that takes years’.

In addition to drama productions, Samira and her fellow students also create folders that deal with the same issues. ‘Students take them home so that their parents can read them’. Samira’s parents are very proud of their daughter. ‘They are glad that I am doing this, because they are also able to be informed’. But while Samira greatly enjoys her work, her future lies in another direction: ‘I would love to become a doctor’.

*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.