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Village elders bear witness to the wrongs of a terrible tribal rite

May 04, 2004

A moving picture is worth more than a 1000 words in the fight against the ritual of female circumcision, writes Gavin du Venage in Cacha village, Ethiopia.


MEBRATE Getanche still carries the memories and scars of the mutilation she suffered as a girl, when village women held her down and cut off her genitals.

Today, the wretchedly poor 22-year-old mother knows whatever other perils her own child will encounter in this harsh land, the rite of female circumcision will not be one of them. "My child will be spared this. She will not have the scar that makes childbirth difficult," Getanche says, as she stares at the bare dirt floor of her crumbling mud hut.

Nearby, her two-year-old daughter peeps shyly from behind the tattered curtain that separates the family room from the sleeping area. She will escape her mother's ordeal, of having her clitoris removed before she turns six, using an old razor blade or perhaps a piece of glass, entirely without painkillers.

Getanche lives in a village of about 1000 people, 400km north of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Recently, Cachas elders took a decision to ban the circumcision of girls, ending a tradition the people of the village had obeyed for generations. If they had not, Getanche would never have been able to protect her child.

What changed their minds was a hard-hitting program that local health authorities have set up, with foreign funding, to fight genital mutilation.

A year ago, the entire village was ushered to a nearby field where a television and video recorder had been set up, powered with a sputtering generator. For many, it was the first time they had seen moving pictures. It was not to be a pleasant experience. The men, women and children of Cacha were shown an actual, filmed circumcision, in all its uncensored horror.

For weeks afterwards people talked of nothing else as they scraped a living from their unyielding fields, or sat around flickering candles in their huts at night.

Finally, the elders took a decision. Girl children would no longer be cut, even if it meant incurring the wrath of the ancestors.

"We make sure the practitioners are also present," says Daniel Leude, district surgeon for the area. "For them, it's like holding up a mirror. Most have never seen a television set.

"At most a photograph, but nothing like this."

The rite of circumcision is secretive. Usually, only the surgeon -- a local traditional healer -- and relatives of the child are present. Leude says that when village elders, the arbiters of law and order in village life, see for themselves what the process entails, they quickly question its value.

So successful has this approach been that many villages now prohibit this traditional practice.

"Gradually we will eliminate this curse from our communities," Leude says.

The World Health Organisation estimates 130 million women worldwide have suffered genital mutilation. In Ethiopia, almost all women have undergone it.

Still, not everyone believes the old ways are best. A network of volunteer educators, drawn from their own communities, is trying to change ancient habits. Like the Avon ladies of the West, they go door to door, to sell people on the idea that their daughters should not be maimed.

Aminat Yimam, wife of a peasant farmer in central Ethiopia's Dessie district, covers up to 25km on foot each day as she trudges from house to house to preach against circumcision.

She is one of a band of community volunteers who receive no salary. The US-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation supplies training materials and a bright blue uniform with umbrella, but for the most part, Yimam's efforts are a personal crusade. "I do this because I do not want young women to experience what I did," she says, as she pauses under a tree to catch her breath in the sweltering 35C heat.

She wipes away perspiration on her brow and says: "When I started, people resisted. Religious leaders did not like what I was saying. Now our leaders have stopped this practice. It is forbidden."

A common misconception is that female circumcision is a purely Muslim practice; in fact, it is carried out in equal measure by Ethiopia's Christian majority and, at one time, even by its tiny Jewish population.

Getting the anti-mutilation message to the Muslim population does, however, present unique difficulties. In the Muslim-dominated Oromhia region, where much of Ethiopia's coffee is produced, a volunteer-based program is also under way.

Because women are not allowed to travel any distance from their houses without a male chaperone, the volunteers here are all men.

Unusually, they are given training in female reproduction and counsel local women on contraception and, of course, preach fervently against female circumcision.

"Before this project began female circumcision was prevalent," says local peasant farmer and volunteer Negash Aba Bulgu. A devout Muslim, Bulgu says he first had to win the support of the local clergy. "With the backing of the religious leaders, we could talk to people about ending circumcision and now incidents have gone down," he says.