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Bogaletch Gebre: The Light Bearer

Published 7 years ago
By Forbes Woman Africa

When her father first glimpsed her, he said, ‘Bogaletch’, meaning ‘flash of light’. And so it would be. In her relentless fight against female genital mutilation and gender-based violence, Ethiopian physician and human rights activist Bogaletch Gebre carries the torch for women around the world.

She was born in rural Ethiopia in the 1950s. It was a time when Ethiopian women had limited aspirations and their experiences were restricted to their villages. Like 125 million girls across 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, Gebre went under the knife, not for medical reasons, but for the ancient practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Thirty million girls worldwide are at risk of being cut in the next decade. Gebre wants that number to be zero.

FGM is the cutting away of part or all of the external female genitalia. The procedure is usually performed on girls from infancy to the age of 15. The painful practice has no health benefits and can cause fatal infections. Gebre points out that FGM may also have long-term consequences, such as infertility, damage to adjacent organs and birth complications.

“Women should not be mutilated alive for the pleasure of men. Basically, there is no other reason [for FGM] but to control women’s sexuality. The FGM practice is to cut female genitalia; the inner labia, the outer labia, and then sew it together … And then you reopen that which you have sewn when she marries. And after she gives birth, let’s say she has multiple births, you sew her up like she is some kind of object, to reduce the size of her vaginal hole, because it is widened through her giving birth,” says Gebre.

When Gebre became the first girl from her village to attend school further than the fourth grade, later receiving a scholarship to study in Israel and the United States, she promised she would be back, and that she would make a difference.

During her studies, Gebre realized FGM had no cultural or religious roots.

“Culture, according to the United Nations, is man-made. It is not ethnic, it is tangible, nobody belongs to one culture… Whenever we talk about human rights issues in Africa, it’s always about culture, so culture is being used as a scapegoat. If it is not in our religion, if it is not in the Bible, if it is not in the Koran, why are we using this culture as our culture?”

When she returned to Ethiopia in 1997, Gebre co-founded KMG—Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma-Tope, which means ‘women of Kembatta working together’—with her younger sister, Fikirte. The non-profit organization promotes communication and dialogue between communities and their leaders.

“We brought together representatives of the community: the young, the old, the educated, religious leaders, even government officials and police. They sit and discuss together, learn about each other and analyze the problems in the community together. And find a way to solve it, to reach a consensus and create their own social contract to abide by,” she explains.

With funding from USAID, international organizations and embassies, KMG promotes women’s education and increased economic opportunities for women. The organization also focuses on demystifying taboos about HIV/Aids and other cultural practices, such as widow inheritance and bridal abduction. Seventy percent of KMG’s three million beneficiaries are women. A measure of the organization’s achievements is the change in mindset on FGM. In 1998, every single woman in Ethiopia’s Kembatta Tembaro region had undergone FGM. A decade later, 97% of people living in the area opposed the practice. But Gebre is not satisfied yet; at 74%, Ethiopia’s national prevalence remains high.

In May 2013, Gebre accepted the King Baudouin African Development Prize on behalf of KMG. The award, which is worth $200,000, provides recipients with a platform to address international aid agencies.

Despite everything she has achieved, Gebre remains humble, describing herself as an ordinary person who works for the betterment of humanity.

And her efforts appear to be bearing fruit. In December, the UN General Assembly called for the complete elimination of FGM. Around 1,775 African communities heeded the call and publicly declared their commitment to end the practice.  ,

When her father first glimpsed her, he said, ‘Bogaletch’, meaning ‘flash of light’. And so it would be. In her relentless fight against female genital mutilation and gender-based violence, Ethiopian physician and human rights activist Bogaletch Gebre carries the torch for women around the world.

She was born in rural Ethiopia in the 1950s. It was a time when Ethiopian women had limited aspirations and their experiences were restricted to their villages. Like 125 million girls across 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, Gebre went under the knife, not for medical reasons, but for the ancient practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Thirty million girls worldwide are at risk of being cut in the next decade. Gebre wants that number to be zero.

FGM is the cutting away of part or all of the external female genitalia. The procedure is usually performed on girls from infancy to the age of 15. The painful practice has no health benefits and can cause fatal infections. Gebre points out that FGM may also have long-term consequences, such as infertility, damage to adjacent organs and birth complications.

“Women should not be mutilated alive for the pleasure of men. Basically, there is no other reason [for FGM] but to control women’s sexuality. The FGM practice is to cut female genitalia; the inner labia, the outer labia, and then sew it together … And then you reopen that which you have sewn when she marries. And after she gives birth, let’s say she has multiple births, you sew her up like she is some kind of object, to reduce the size of her vaginal hole, because it is widened through her giving birth,” says Gebre.

When Gebre became the first girl from her village to attend school further than the fourth grade, later receiving a scholarship to study in Israel and the United States, she promised she would be back, and that she would make a difference.

During her studies, Gebre realized FGM had no cultural or religious roots.

“Culture, according to the United Nations, is man-made. It is not ethnic, it is tangible, nobody belongs to one culture… Whenever we talk about human rights issues in Africa, it’s always about culture, so culture is being used as a scapegoat. If it is not in our religion, if it is not in the Bible, if it is not in the Koran, why are we using this culture as our culture?”

When she returned to Ethiopia in 1997, Gebre co-founded KMG—Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma-Tope, which means ‘women of Kembatta working together’—with her younger sister, Fikirte. The non-profit organization promotes communication and dialogue between communities and their leaders.

“We brought together representatives of the community: the young, the old, the educated, religious leaders, even government officials and police. They sit and discuss together, learn about each other and analyze the problems in the community together. And find a way to solve it, to reach a consensus and create their own social contract to abide by,” she explains.

With funding from USAID, international organizations and embassies, KMG promotes women’s education and increased economic opportunities for women. The organization also focuses on demystifying taboos about HIV/Aids and other cultural practices, such as widow inheritance and bridal abduction. Seventy percent of KMG’s three million beneficiaries are women. A measure of the organization’s achievements is the change in mindset on FGM. In 1998, every single woman in Ethiopia’s Kembatta Tembaro region had undergone FGM. A decade later, 97% of people living in the area opposed the practice. But Gebre is not satisfied yet; at 74%, Ethiopia’s national prevalence remains high.

In May 2013, Gebre accepted the King Baudouin African Development Prize on behalf of KMG. The award, which is worth $200,000, provides recipients with a platform to address international aid agencies.

Despite everything she has achieved, Gebre remains humble, describing herself as an ordinary person who works for the betterment of humanity.

And her efforts appear to be bearing fruit. In December, the UN General Assembly called for the complete elimination of FGM. Around 1,775 African communities heeded the call and publicly declared their commitment to end the practice.

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Related Topics: #‘Bogaletch’, #activist, #Cultural, #Ethiopia, #Genital Mutilation, #Human rights, #Middle East, #October 2013, #Religious.