The Dominion Post

De­fender of Ethiopian women against bridal ab­duc­tion and gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion

- Sexism · Crime · Women's Rights · Supermodels · Society · Discrimination · Feminism · Human Rights · Celebrities · Social Movements · Ethiopia · Middle East · World Health Organization · United Kingdom · Los Angeles · Israel · United States of America · Addis Ababa · God · Hebrew University of Jerusalem · Jerusalem · Massachusetts · University of Massachusetts · Amherst, MA · Africa · California

Bo­galetch Ge­bre nearly bled to death about the age of 12 when, like al­most all Ethiopian girls of her gen­er­a­tion and be­fore, she was sub­jected to the ex­cru­ci­at­ing rit­ual now known as fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion.

A man re­strained her while two women held her legs and a third wielded the ra­zor. Her mother cried as Ge­bre was led away for the cut­ting cer­e­mony. She would have liked to spare Boge, as Ge­bre was known, but saw no way to avoid the or­deal.

‘‘Cleans­ing the dirt’’, the lo­cal term for gen­i­tal cut­ting, was treated across faiths in Ethiopia as a rite that made a young woman mar­riage­able.

Many vic­tims died from blood loss, in­fec­tion or sub­se­quent com­pli­ca­tions.

Ge­bre, who had al­ready de­fied ex­pec­ta­tions for girls in her vil­lage by se­cretly learn­ing to read, went on to de­vote her life to end­ing fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion (FGM), as well as bridal ab­duc­tion, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and other scourges that, she said, made Ethiopian women ‘‘live in fear every day of their lives’’.

She led change not with demon­stra­tions or con­fronta­tion, but through what she de­scribed as com­mu­nity con­ver­sa­tions fa­cil­i­tated by a non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion she co­founded and in­volv­ing women as well as men.

FGM, while de­clin­ing, con­tin­ues to be per­formed in Ethiopia, as in other African coun­tries, the Mid­dle East and Asia, ac­cord­ing to the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion. But in the ar­eas of Ethiopia where Ge­bre worked, the im­prove­ment has been marked: 3 per cent of vil­lagers in 2008, down from 97 per cent in a sur­vey eight years ear­lier, said they wished their daugh­ters to un­dergo FGM, ac­cord­ing to a 2010 Unicef study.

Ge­bre, de­scribed by Bri­tain’s In­de­pen­dent as ‘‘the woman who be­gan the re­bel­lion of Ethiopian women’’, died in Los An­ge­les of causes that have not yet been dis­closed. She was al­ways un­sure of her age, hav­ing never re­ceived a birth cer­tifi­cate, but was thought to be 65 or 66. She had lived in Los An­ge­les dur­ing and after grad­u­ate school and re­turned pe­ri­od­i­cally to re­ceive treat­ment for nerve dam­age she sus­tained in a car crash in 1987.

Her life took her from a farm­ing vil­lage in cen­tral Ethiopia, where she stole away for school­ing dur­ing long trips to col­lect wa­ter, to sci­en­tific stud­ies at uni­ver­si­ties in Is­rael and the United States, and back to Ethiopia, where she won the re­spect of women as well as men, who, it was said, were as­ton­ished to see a woman achieve such suc­cess.

She was born in 1953, ac­cord­ing to her non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion KMG Ethiopia, in a vil­lage south­west of the cap­i­tal Ad­dis Ababa. Most of her 13 sib­lings died in child­hood.

Ge­bre de­scribed her mother as in­tel­li­gent and wise, but told the In­de­pen­dent that she and other women were ‘‘re­garded as no bet­ter than the cows they milked’’. ‘‘All her life she was abused and beaten – for noth­ing. She had her back stooped, her legs bro­ken, her jaw bro­ken, even though she did ev­ery­thing right. It was a night­mare, but for her it was a life. And some­how she still smiled. When there is no al­ter­na­tive, you some­how ac­cept this as all you will get. In that sit­u­a­tion, many women ac­cept their sit­u­a­tion as God-given, not man-made.’’

Ge­bre was said to have been the first girl in her vil­lage to re­ceive school­ing be­yond the fourth grade. She re­ceived a schol­ar­ship to en­roll at a women’s board­ing school in Ad­dis Ababa, then stud­ied the sci­ences at He­brew Univer­sity in Jerusalem. She re­ceived a masters from the Univer­sity of Mas­sachusetts at Amherst, and pur­sued fur­ther grad­u­ate stud­ies in epi­demi­ol­ogy at UCLA.

She traced her fer­vour for end­ing FGM to the death of a sis­ter dur­ing child­birth from com­pli­ca­tions caused by FGM, which made it im­pos­si­ble for her to de­liver her twins. ‘‘From that mo­ment I couldn’t stop think­ing about it,’’ she later told Africa News. ‘‘My goal was: can I save one girl from that hor­ror? It be­came the drive for what I started.’’

She left Cal­i­for­nia for Ethiopia and founded her or­ganida­tion with another sis­ter, Fikirte. She won the co-op­er­a­tion of com­mu­ni­ties by first pro­vid­ing prac­ti­cal ser­vices, such as the con­struc­tion of a bridge or well. Slowly, she be­gan en­cour­ag­ing di­a­logue on such top­ics as ed­u­ca­tion for girls, HIV/Aids, and the kid­nap­ping of young women into mar­riage. Dur­ing dis­cus­sions of FGM, she showed videos of the pro­ce­dure that left men phys­i­cally ill. ‘‘Peo­ple in vil­lages may be il­lit­er­ate, but they are not stupid. They want what’s good for them­selves and their chil­dren,’’ The Lancet quoted her as say­ing.

Ge­bre was never mar­ried and had no chil­dren. ‘‘I be­gan KMG Ethiopia think­ing that, if I could save a sin­gle girl from a dread­ful life, from prac­tices that numb, crush the spirit and rob women of their dig­nity, I would have done my life’s mis­sion,’’ she once said. She added that the ‘‘break­throughs’’ – the first ab­ducted bride re­turned to her fam­ily, the first un­cut young woman mar­ried in a pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion – come ‘‘one girl at a time, one per­son at a time’’. –

‘‘My goal was: can I save one girl from that hor­ror? It be­came the drive for what I started.’’

 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand