The Dominion Post
Defender of Ethiopian women against bridal abduction and genital mutilation
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.’’