In Afar, a region in north east Ethiopia, over 90 percent of women are subjected to one of the severest types of genital mutilation. The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play a central role in communities, such as attending childbirths.
In Ethiopia as a whole, the prevalence of genital mutilation among girls and women between 15-49 years was estimated at around 74% in 2007 by UNICEF based on national survey data. But in Afar, the prevalence is much higher because of the traditional rural communities.
CARE Ethiopia has been working to educate the circumcisers in this region and make them aware of the health risks suffered by children and women from the practice. Apart from immediate complications of severe pain, bleeding, infection, urine retention and open sores, long-term consequences can include recurring bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, as well as the risks inherent in the further surgery which is required to the vaginal opening.
Women in this rural region are viewed as a family asset and given in marriage to another clan as early as ten years old. Traditionally, girls were expected to be circumcised in order to make an honourable marriage. As well as highlighting the health dangers of this traditional practice, CARE is educating circumcisers to become professional birth attendants or encouraging them to take up alternative professions by equipping them with other skills. When women earn their own income, it allows them control of their lives and gives them empowerment to speak up and assert their rights. After discussions with religious teachers, former circumcisers are also learning that no religious scripts prescribe the practice, which is mainly carried out to reduce a woman’s sexual libido and discourage illicit intercourse, so that girls are “pure” and “clean” on marriage.
In Afar, a survey has shown that the work to raise awareness about the dangers of genital mutilation has lead to a decrease of 7.5% in prevalence since 1998. There are now at least 2,000 girls who are registered as free from circumcision in the past 3 years.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that between 100 and 140 million girls and women worldwide have been subject to genital mutilation, most of them in Africa, where 91.5 million women live with the consequences. There are an estimated 3 million girls in Africa today who risk being subjected to this ritual mutilation every year. But if education and greater awareness can make a difference in Ethiopia and especially in Afar, which has one of the highest prevalence rates of the practice, then there is hope for millions of Africa’s children that they might escape this cruel, degrading and life-threatening practice.