Gebre’s approach to women’s rights is a lesson in change

Financial Times

October 6, 2016

Bogaletch Gebre has improved millions of lives in Ethiopia one respectful conversation at a time

Change agent: ‘When one door is closed, I seek another door’ © Lucy Westcott
yesterday

Dressed sharply in a dark coat, scarf and sun glasses, Bogaletch Gebre sits facing a roomful of community advocates in Kembatta-Tembaro, her home region in southernEthiopia. Long, fragrant grass is scattered on the floor in an Ethiopian custom. One by one, village volunteers share their experiences from Kembatta and nearby areas. When the meeting concludes hours later, Ms Gebre effusively recalls one young woman’s newly found confidence on becoming an advocate for girls and women. She told Ms Gebre: “I never thought I had something important enough to say that would be heard by others. I never knew I had a tongue that could say what I’m saying.”

Those words could be echoed by thousands of girls and women whose lives have been changed by Ms Gebre. She has done everything from helping to stem the spread of Aids in Africa to raising the status of women in villages where they were treated little better than cattle. Her biggest achievement, however, has been to help almost eradicate the practice of female genital mutilation in her part of Ethiopia and beyond. The speed of her success has prompted others to adopt her approach, which also holds lessons for those attempting to achieve change beyond the sphere of development work.

Ms Gebre, fiery and forceful when she talks about injustice and the subjugation of women, declares that FGM has no place in the 21st century. “It should not be allowed in any name to demean our humanity or a woman’s personhood,” she says.

That intense conviction has led to dramatic change in parts of southern Ethiopia where many communities have abandoned the generations-old tradition. In 1999, shortly after she founded her non-governmental group KMG, nearly 97 per cent of people surveyed supported FGM in Kembatta-Tembaro, in which 680,000 people live. Yet, by 2008, less than 5 per cent said they supported the practice, according to a Unicef study.

Worldwide, more than 200m girls and women have undergone FGM. The majority of them live in northern African countries and some in the Middle East. The practice is dangerous and violates women’s human rights. It also reflects their powerlessness and keeps them from achieving economic independence from their fathers and husbands in poor communities. This second-class status can keep women from participating more fully in the economy, stymying their nation’s ability to grow out of poverty, development agencies say.

KMG stands for Kembatti Mentti Gezzima-Toppe — translated as “women of Kembatta working together” from the local language of Kembatta. Over the years, the campaign has been steadily expanding. Out of 28 districts where KMG works, only eight are now in Kembatta. Almost 4m people benefit from KMG’s programmes today.

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The cornerstones of KMG’s work are “community conversations” in villages — groups of 50 people from all walks of life who discuss matters of concern with help from trained facilitators. Women, men, elders, farmers, young, old, educated and illiterate, all meet twice a month and learn about issues seldom discussed in public, including domestic and sexual violence, bride abduction, dowries and female genital mutilation. Over time and lengthy discussion, people change their minds and agree to new community bylaws.

“When you listen to them, they listen to you,” says Ms Gebre. “Change can only come from within. And individual change becomes community change.”

Her approach has been so successful that, in 2002, KMG collaborated with the UN Development Programme to use community conversations to help control the spread of HIV and Aids. In addition, KMG provides legal training for judges, police and lawyers, economic empowerment programmes for women and support for girls’ clubs. The organisation also supports environmental work such as planting seedlings and other projects to reduce poverty.

When she started KMG, “saving one girl was my mission, not thousands or millions,” says Ms Gebre, now aged 62. “I don’t want any more girls to go through what I went through, or my sisters went through. That determination allows me to do what I have done,” she explains. “When you start doing something and you see the results, that’s the driving force. When one door is closed, I seek another door.”

Change can only come from within. And individual change becomes community change.

Half of the women and girls who have undergone FGM live in Egypt, Somalia and Ethiopia, according to Unicef. The prevalence of FGM in Ethiopia is 74 per cent among girls and women aged 15 to 49 in a population of more than 94m.

FGM is practised by both Muslim and Christian communities although there is no mention of it in the Koran or the Bible. It is a rite of passage and often considered necessary for a girl or woman to marry. The procedure can cause haemorrhage, scarring, infections, childbirth complications and psychological trauma. There are no health benefits.

When Ms Gebre was at school, her older sister died when she could not give birth to healthy twins due to complications from FGM.

However, Ms Gebre displayed a fierce, determined will long before her sister’s death. Girls did not go to school in her village. But she studied clandestinely with relatives and learned to read. Ms Gebre demanded to attend her local elementary school. In a recent conversation with her male schoolmates, they remembered her persistence. “It was not because we allowed you — you pushed in,” they recalled. Ms Gebre replied, “If I didn’t fight, I would not be here today.”

Bogaletch Gebre, winner of the 2012-2013 award of King Baudouin foundation for development in Africa, shows her prize at a ceremony at the Royal Palace, in Brussels, on May 22, 2013. © Getty

That determination led her to attend the only girls’ boarding school at the time in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Ms Gebre won a scholarship to Hebrew University in Israel where she earned an undergraduate degree in physiology and microbiology. She then went to the US as a Fulbright scholar to study parasitology and protozoology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Ms Gebre started a PhD in epidemiology at the University of California Los Angeles but eventually returned to Ethiopia.

While in California, she founded an organisation to help children affected by the famine devastating Ethiopia. That grew into a larger project to work on girls’ education, health, water, HIV and other issues in Ethiopia. Ms Gebre eventually left the US to return home in 1995. “I saw the need to establish an organisation here, not in America. To make a difference, I had to come back here, the place where I was born, to work with people, not for people,” she says.

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While she was attending graduate school in the US, an American friend asked Ms Gebre whether she knew about FGM. She was shocked; she had never discussed the procedure with anyone. “I was hesitant to answer her.” She remembers thinking: “This is a personal issue. How dare she ask!”

When she started KMG with her younger sister Fikirte, it first addressed other concerns in the community.

In 1998, at Ms Gebre’s first talk about social issues at her childhood church in Kembatta, community elders asked for help to repair a local bridge. Without the bridge, two people had died trying to cross the river.

“I didn’t come thinking to build bridges. I came to help young girls escape FGM,” recalls Ms Gebre. “But before the end of the year we built that bridge. That really connected the community. And we learnt that without listening and learning from the community, without answering their needs, you cannot change.”

Through community conversations, awareness about the harmful effects of FGM began to grow. Within a few years, change began to take root. In September 2002, the first girl not to have undergone FGM married in Kembatta in a public ceremony attended by 3,000 people, smashing a big taboo. In 2004, KMG held a similar celebration attended by 100,000 people and such festivities are now an annual event.

Surprisingly, the transformation “didn’t take long”, says Ms Gebre. Change happens quickly “when you respect people in their own place, give them dignity to their way of life, when you don’t condemn or dictate”, she notes. Instead of people saying “this is what is wrong”, she suggests they should say: “These are the problems. You have the power to change.”

This story was produced with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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