LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Bogaletch Gebre returned to Ethiopia after 15 years in the United States, her goal was to save just one girl from the horror of female genital mutilation – a ritual that had killed her sister and nearly claimed her own life.
But the former scientist and marathon runner has since spearheaded a quiet revolution that has all but eradicated the ancient practice from her home region and saved tens of thousands of girls from potential injury or death.
FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, is prevalent across Ethiopia where it is widely seen as a prerequisite for marriage.
In southern Ethiopia, where Gebre grew up, girls usually undergo FGM in their teens and the ritual is followed by an important celebration in which young men court the newly cut girls.
The local expression for FGM is revealing.
“It is called removing the dirt,” said Gebre, who has just added another major award to her growing collection of honours for her work in human rights, development and environmentalism.
“It is supposed to keep the woman clean. But it’s really about making a young woman docile and obedient and controlling her sexuality so that she will not seek anything outside marriage.”
For the first half of her life, Gebre accepted FGM as a part of her culture, albeit one you did not talk about. But everything changed when an American friend asked her if she had been cut. Gebre was aghast.
“I was furious,” she told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I thought how dare you ask me about my culture, for one, and secondly, speaking about body parts in my culture is a taboo.”
But her friend gave her articles to read that unleashed feelings she had long suppressed.
“I almost died from bleeding … it was horrible. All that memory came storming back and I was outraged and I was angry,” Gebre said.
“My anger is not only because of me. My older sister died because of female genital mutilation. She was heavily pregnant with twins. She started bleeding and they couldn’t take out her babies because her body was so tight.”
Her rage spurred her to action. “From that moment I couldn’t stop thinking about it. My goal was: can I save one girl from that horror? It became the drive for what I started.”
Gebre’s story is remarkable. She grew up in Kembatta-Tembarro, a poor region where she says women were valued no more than the cows they milked. She doesn’t know how old she is – only that she was born in the 1950s. Girls were illiterate and bride abductions common.
But the young Gebre was determined to learn to read and would sneak into a small church school during trips to collect water for household chores.
She was eventually sent to school in the capital Addis Ababa, won a scholarship to study microbiology and physiology in Israel, secured a Fulbright scholarship to do a masters degree in parasitology at the University of Massachusetts and embarked on a PhD in epidemiology at UCLA in California.
While living in the United States, she set up a charity called Development Through Education and ran marathons to raise money to send books home – 300,000 books in all.
This was all the more amazing given that five years earlier she had suffered serious back injuries in a car crash and doctors had told her she would never walk properly.
In 1997, Gebre returned to Ethiopia where she and her sister, Fikrte, launched the charity Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma (KMG), which translates as Kembatta Women Standing Together.
The broad vision is women’s empowerment but Gebre started by tackling FGM. She knew she could not simply tell people to stop such a deeply entrenched tradition so she began by talking about health.
“I started telling my own story and my sister’s story so it became real, and women started understanding and they started crying because they knew somebody who had died, they had children who had died, but they had never directly related it.”
KMG’s ethos is to instigate social change through “community conversations” involving everyone. This includes young men who are yet to marry, as well as elders and religious leaders.
Gebre works with both Christians and Muslims and uses the Bible and Koran to dispel the commonly held view that FGM is a religious obligation. Neither book mentions cutting.
Her arguments appeal to people’s faith. “As Christians and Muslims, we are saying, ‘God, You are perfect. But when You made women You made a mistake.’ Can we correct God?”
A turning point came in 2002 with the first public celebration of the marriage of an uncut girl. The bride and groom wore signs – hers stated she was uncut, his said he was happy to be marrying a whole woman.
The traditional festivities to celebrate girls after they have been cut have been turned into “whole body celebrations” to honour girls who are uncut. These events have been instrumental in creating a wider movement.
When the U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, conducted a survey in Kembatta-Tembarro in 2008, it found 97 percent of the population opposed FGM – a practice that had been universal only a decade before. UNICEF has recommended that KMG’s model be replicated in other regions of Africa.
Last month Gebre won the King Baudouin Development Prize for her "inspirational leadership” in empowering women and tackling social issues like FGM, bridal abductions and HIV/AIDS.
She hopes to use the 150,000 euros ($197,000) prize money to start a women’s science and technology college in Kembatta-Tembarro. The former university biology lecturer wants to dispel the myth that girls can’t do science.
As for FGM, Gebre is under no allusions that the practice is still widespread in Ethiopia. She is hoping for funding to scale up KMG’s work across the country.
“We should be able to end FGM in a decade to 15 years,” she said. “But change takes commitment. It doesn’t happen by miracle.”