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When saying ‘I do’ means saying ‘I don’t’

More and more couples in Ethiopia are saying no to the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – recognised as a danger to female life and health.

Nine months ago, an Ethiopian bride and groom made international headlines by adding a startling new pledge to their marriage vows.

Now their courageous move has made them Ethiopian role models.

At their Sept 2002 wedding in Durame, capital of Kembata district, 22 year-old bride Genet Girma wore a placard around her neck which declared: "I am not circumcised, learn from me."

Twenty-four year old Adissie Abossie's placard reciprocated: "I am proud to marry an uncircumcised woman."

Just how brave Girma and Abossie were in deciding to celebrate their marriage by taking a public stand against the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is hard to appreciate without some idea of how widespread the practice is.

FGM – also called female genital cutting, circumcision or excision – involves the cutting or removal of external female genitalia. The practice affects about 90 per cent of the female population among all religious and ethnic groups in Ethiopia. It is performed on infants in the first week of life, as late as a few days before a woman's wedding, or during childhood or puberty.

Communities which practice FGM say it is part of their tradition and religious teachings – although no religion actually demands it. Supporters claim FGM protects girls' virginity, discourages female 'promiscuity', promotes cleanliness, guarantees marriage and improves fertility.

The reality is that FGM is a danger to female health and life. The operation is intensely painful, typically performed without anaesthesia, in unhygienic conditions with razor blades, knives or even broken glass.

Immediate, life-threatening complications include haemorrhaging, blood poisoning, tetanus and gangrene. Long-term consequences include persistent pain, psychological distress and chronic infections, including the risk of HIV infection from shared cutting instruments. It can also cause genital scarring which can complicate labour and obstruct childbirth, causing permanent injury – even death – to women in labour.

But attitudes to FGM in Ethiopia and elsewhere are slowly changing due to government and non-governmental interventions. The Kembata Women's Self-Help Centre (KMG), for instance, has been quietly working to eradicate FGM since 1997 by educating young girls and their families about its dangers.

Its school and community-based workshops and individual follow-ups have led some 4,000 women and girls in the Kembata region, 416 km south of the capital Addis Ababa, to sign a pledge against FGM – and Girma was one of them.

"The reason I was able to avoid being circumcised is because of the training I took through KMG," says Girma, who persuaded her parents to delay the procedure. Another incentive was her fiancé's strong opposition. "He told me that if I am circumcised he wouldn't marry me," she adds.

Once she announced her engagement – still fearful that her parents would insist on the operation – Girma left her family home and lived with Abossie before the marriage.

Abossie knew from personal experience the suffering FGM causes. "I was the first child and I could see how difficult [subsequent] deliveries were for my mother," he explains. Women who have experienced the most extreme form of FGM must be cut open and resewn after every birth.

"After I understood that it resulted from circumcision, I decided not to marry a circumcised girl."

The couple's decision to use their wedding as "part of a campaign to eliminate FGM" initially alienated Girma's parents, who refused to attend the ceremony, fearing their uncircumcised daughter would bring shame on the family.

Nonetheless, some 2,000 people turned up to celebrate the wedding, which was broadcast by Ethiopian television news, invited by the KMG.

Happily, Girma and her parents are now reconciled after they realised that instead of being ostracised, their daughter and son-in-law have become role models in Ethiopia.

Another dozen uncircumcised young women in Kembata and their husbands – all wearing placards around their necks – have since held anti-FGM weddings. When Genet Markos married, her family also couldn't accept her choice. The parents of her fiancé, Mulat Dutebcho, however, were very supportive.

"That is because," says Dutebcho, "my brother is chairperson for the advocacy services on FGM in the Hobichhaqqa area." Dutebcho hopes to further influence his community by "not letting our daughters be circumcised".

KMG founder Dr Bogalech Gebre is thrilled, saying "every [anti-FGM] wedding is becoming a forum for education". After Girma's and Abossie's marriage, Gebre accompanied the couple on a tour of other regions of Ethiopia where they shared their experiences with fellow anti-FGM campaigners.

Gebre acknowledges that what works in one community may not be appropriate for others. "Change must come from within," she notes. Many activists now believe that dialogue and education are more effective than top-down 'we-know-what's-best' directives against FGM – which can backfire and drive the practice underground.

Gebre, who was cut at the age of six, has said: "I understood the purpose [of] female genital excision was to excise my mind, excise my ability to live with all my senses intact."

Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, agrees that FGM "…is related to the denial of sexual freedom for women." A report by the UN Human Rights Commission launched in April says governments have made progress in enacting laws to protect women from FGM. However, criminalising the practice alone will not eliminate it.

"We have to devise creative kinds of strategies to deal with the issue."

Approximately 140 million women and girls, mostly in Africa, have undergone FGM and another two million are at risk every year, according to the World Health Organization. Ten African countries have legislated against FGM. In Ethiopia, the government banned FGM in 1994.

One girl child most definitely not at risk is Girma's and Abossie's two-month-old daughter. She is called Wimma, which means full or complete.

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Panos London

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