Ethiopia: Report on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) or Female Genital Cutting (FGC)

Released by the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues

Type I (commonly referred to as clitoridectomy) and Type II (commonly referred to as excision) are the two most common forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC) practiced among Ethiopian women and girls, Type II being the most common. Type III (commonly referred to as infibulation) is practiced in the eastern Muslim regions bordering Sudan and Somalia. Type IV (referred to as "Mariam Girz" in Ethiopia) is practiced mainly in the Amhara region. These practices cross religious boundaries, including Christians, Muslims and Ethiopian Jews (Falashas).

In 1997/1998 the National Committee on Traditional Practices in Ethiopia (NCTPE) carried out a national baseline survey to determine the prevalence of this practice. Some 44,000 people were interviewed in a study reaching 65 of Ethiopia's 80 ethnic groups (urban and rural) in all ten regions of the country. The published results show 72.7 percent of the female population have undergone one of these procedures.

Regional statistics of the prevalence from the survey are: Afar Region – 94.5 percent; Harare Region – 81.2 percent; Amhara Region – 81.1 percent; Oromia Region – 79.6 percent; Addis Ababa City – 70.2 percent; Somali Region – 69.7 percent; Beneshangul Gumuz Region – 52.9 percent; Tigray Region – 48.1 percent; Southern Region – 46.3 percent.

Type I, often called the "sunna circumcision" in Ethiopia, is commonly practiced among the Amharas, Tigrayans and the Jeberti Muslims living in Tigray. The Gurages, some Tigrayans, Oromos and the Shankilas practice Type II. Type III, the most drastic and harmful form, is common among the Afar, the Somali and the Harari. Type IV, called "Mariam Girz", is practiced mainly in Gojam in the Amhara region.

A number of groups do not practice any of these forms. These are the Bengas of Wellega, the Azezo, the Dorze, the Bonke, the Shama and some population groups in Godole, Konso and Gojam.

Attitudes and Beliefs:
Cultural practice encourages women to want to undergo one of these procedures. It is often associated with positive attributes such as gaining respect within the village and becoming a woman. Most importantly, girls who have not undergone one of the procedures are considered more likely to be promiscuous and, therefore, unworthy of marriage. The belief also exists that external female genitals are unclean.

Some use religion as the basis for their justification in performing these procedures, despite the fact they are not required by either the Quran or the Bible. Some Coptic Christian priests refuse to baptize girls who have not undergone one of the procedures.

Type I:
Type I is the excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of all or part of the clitoris.

Type II:
Type II is the excision (removal) of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips).

Type III:
Type III is the excision (removal) of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl or woman's legs are then bound together from the hip to the ankle so she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue.

Type IV:
Type IV includes the pricking, piercing or incision of the clitoris and/or labia. In Ethiopia the "Mariam Girz" involves blood letting with a sharp needle performed on girls with a stunted clitoris who are assumed to have been already circumcised by St. Mary.

The type of procedure and the stage in a woman or girl's life when it is performed vary according to regions of the country. It may take place eight days after birth, at any time between the age of seven and the onset of puberty, or just before marriage. Women practitioners perform the procedure. It is generally performed without the aid of anesthesia.

Outreach Activities:
The government has created an atmosphere conducive to the eradication of this practice. It has encouraged the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). For example, the NCTPE has signed a tripartite agreement with the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission and the Ministry of Health to undertake activities in the campaign against traditional practices harmful to the health of society in general and women and children in particular. The regional governments provide much in-kind support to NGOs such as use of conference halls, vehicles and teaching aids all free of charge.

The government is working to discourage these practices through programs in the public schools. Ethiopia's Federal Institute for Curriculum Development and Research (ICDR), working under the aegis of the Ministry of Education, has mandated that regional bureaus include materials discouraging harmful cultural practices, including FGM/FGC, in primary school curricula. Primary school children are taught to differentiate between "good culture" and "bad culture" beginning in grade four. According to the ICDR, "good culture" includes architecture, arts, literature, music and food traditions, whereas "bad culture" includes practices such as FGM/FGC. Schools have used anti-FGM/FGC curricular materials since 1994. The Education Ministry is conducting a study to determine what effects these materials have had on local practices.

Since the 1991 fall of the Communist "Derg" regime and the new government's promulgation of a National Policy on Women, a women's desk has been established within each ministry of the government to give moral support to the anti-FGM/FGC campaign.

The NCTPE, which was set up in 1987, is a chapter of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC). One of its objectives is to discourage and eradicate all forms of harmful traditional practices, including FGM/FGC. The IAC was given permission to establish its regional headquarters permanently in Addis Ababa.

The NCTPE carries out a wide range of activities to inform women about the health problems associated with this practice. Its activities include production and distribution of teaching materials, workshops throughout the country, activities with refugees and returnees, symposia to raise awareness for the media, teaching to raise awareness in secondary schools and research. In 1997, numerous informational activities about FGM/FGC were carried out by its regional branch offices throughout the country. It produces information materials such as posters, T-shirts and bumper stickers in order to raise public awareness about the harmful effects of the practice.

The NCTPE has received financial support for its education activities from the Embassies of the United States and the Netherlands. In 1995/1996, the U.S. Embassy through its Democracy and Human Rights Fund (DHRF) provided a grant of US$56,000 to NCTPE for educational materials, training activities and purchase of technical equipment for teaching aids.

The NCTPE is divided into three sub-committees: education materials, research and fund raising. It works hand in hand with the Women's Affairs Bureau in the Prime Minister's office. It also works with the support of the Italian Association for Women in Development (AIDOS), Radda Barnen-Ethiopia and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The NCTPE tackles this practice as a health issue, rather than a human rights issue. Because the practice stems from culture and tradition, simply telling people that it is "bad" or "a human rights abuse" would not be effective. It has opened ten branch offices in the regions of the country. These offices are particularly active in the Afar, Somali, East Oromia and Harare regions where the most extreme form, Type III, is practiced.

NGOs have contributed to putting the subject on the political agenda by concentrating on information, sensitization and capacity building at the grassroots level. They have targeted groups thought to be influential such as teachers, religious leaders, health practitioners, traditional birth attendants (TBAs), women's and youth representatives and local government officials. They also focus on teaching school children about the adverse health effects related to this practice. Program activities consist of showing videos, distributing posters, holding seminars and follow up evaluations.

Positive First Results: Outreach efforts by the NCTPE have had some positive effects. Two years after the NCTPE had conducted a seminar on this subject in Wellega, one former excisor said she had been so affected by the seminar she changed her livelihood. She now washes and irons clothes for a living. In another case in a school in Addis Ababa some girls who had written a report with the NCTPE's help on the harmful effects of the practice, learned that four of their classmates were going to be subjected to it. They enlisted the help of a teacher who had undergone anti-FGM/FGC training. By threatening to expel the four girls if they were subjected to this practice, the teacher was able to prevent it from happening.

Some religious leaders have started preaching that this practice has no basis in the Bible or Quran and, in fact, has negative health effects. In September 1998, Christian and Muslim leaders publicly denounced this practice.

Press conferences, articles and short messages have been used to disseminate information about this practice. Since 1995, short radio messages and spots transmitted through the education radio programs to school communities and general audiences have been used to create awareness about the negative effects. The U.S. Embassy provided a DHRF grant of US$25,000 to the NCTPE in 1999 to fund a National Media Campaign on FGM, Early Marriage and Abduction.

Legal Status:
The government's population policy, health policy and women's policy all promote eradication of harmful traditional practices, including FGM/FGC.

This practice is not specifically illegal in Ethiopia. However, the 1995 Constitution and the 1960 Penal Code provide a legal basis for prohibiting harmful traditional practices. Article 35, Section 4 of the Constitution states that "Women have the right to protection by the state from harmful customs. Laws, customs and practices that oppress women or cause bodily or mental harm to them are prohibited." In the 1960 Penal Code, there is a prohibition against torture and the cutting off of any body parts. This provision is interpreted by some as prohibiting this practice.

The Criminal Code is currently being revised. The Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association (EWLA) has focused its efforts on updating federal laws regarding women's rights, including writing provisions into the new Criminal Code that will make FGM/FGC a crime. The U.S. Embassy has provided DHRF grants to EWLA in its efforts to change laws affecting women's rights, including this practice.

The 1993 national policy on Ethiopian women states that "Ethiopian women are victims of circumcision and other harmful practices...such harmful customs and practices must be eliminated, for they stand in the way of progress and endanger lives. They should not be allowed to perpetuate." The policy further describes strategies: "The Government, with cooperation from the peoples of Ethiopia, shall facilitate conditions conducive to the informing and education of concerned communities about such harmful practice as female circumcision."

Discussions with government officials and NGOs active in the eradication of these practices indicate that the legal provision for prohibiting harmful traditional practices and the policy statements against them are not, as a practical matter, enforced. The practice is, however, officially discouraged by statements and actions of the government, which has been very supportive of the NCTPE in its campaign to eradicate this practice.

There are no documented cases of women going to court over or seeking protection against this practice. We are unaware of any groups or organizations that provide protection to women or girls who wish to avoid it.

Prepared by the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, Office of the Under Secretary for Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State, June 2001

Released on June 1, 2001


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