Midday light filters in to a dusty classroom in Sidama in the mountainous region of southern Ethiopia. Asnakech Qere, 28, listens as the headmaster talks about girls’ rights. On the benches next to her, girls and boys are whispering and glancing out of the window, but Asnakech sits up straight, without moving.
You might think she is the mother of a pupil, but she is here as a fifth-grade student. Asnakech woke at 4 a.m., lit the fire and made breakfast for her family, milked two cows, and did her homework. After the sun rose, she walked over one hour to get to school.
Asnakech’s husband does not support her going to school and is unhappy she isn’t at home doing the housework. But Asnakech is not giving up now that she’s managed to return to school after several years.
“I used to love school as a girl, but my parents did not appreciate the importance of sending girls to school. I had to stop going after second grade, like so many girls still do today,” Asnakech explains.
She prefers to talk about her life in the schoolyard, because she does not feel safe at home.
When Asnakech was 12, her parents decided that it was time for her to undergo FGM. A self-taught circumciser came to the family home. Askenech still recalls how scared she was and how no one comforted her. The circumciser cut her clitoris and outer labia using a razor blade. She pressed ashes and cow manure on the bleeding cuts.
Five days later Asnakech was walking near her home in her village, when a man she did not know forced her to go with him and raped her.
“My family made me marry him, because I was no longer pure. No one else would have had me,” says Asnakech.
Bride kidnapping used to be a common practice in rural Ethiopia a few decades back. Today, the custom has been nearly stamped out and Asnakech is one of the last girls forced to marry their rapist. She knew nothing of her 25-year-old husband.
The child bride felt intimidated in her new home, a one-room clay hut, where her husband’s parents also lived. Asnakech tried to escape but could not find her way home. FGM and the rape have left her with severe injuries, and it took a long time before she recovered.
“I still cannot find words to describe the pain I felt. The idea of sexual intercourse felt a sheer impossibility, but I had no choice,” says Asnakech.
Soon, Asnakech discovered she was pregnant. During the pregnancy, she suffered pain and fear. When she went into labor, the contractions and bleeding lasted for two days. Finally, her husband’s family took Asnakech to a hospital.
The little baby boy had died in her uterus.
“Without a C-section I would have died, too. I can still feel the loss of my baby boy inside me every day,” she says.
Six months later, Asnakech was pregnant again. This time she gave birth to a living baby girl, Tewabech. Four years later Tewabech had a brother, Cherinet.
The children were born by C-section, as vaginal birth was not possible due to the complications from FGM and the first delivery. They also caused recurrent infections that Asnakech did not know how to treat.
In the mountainous villages of Sidama, there is a common belief that a woman who has had a C-section will live no longer than seven years. When her daughter’s seventh birthday drew near, Asnakech thought her life was coming to an end and she worried over the future of her daughter.
FGM was – and still continues to be – the norm in Sidama. Nine out of 10 girls are cut before they reach their teens in the area where Asnakech comes from. The families believe an uncut girl is unruly, runs after men, and breaks things, whereas cut girls are obedient and give birth to sons.
“I was certain that FGM was in the best interests of my daughter,” says Asnakech. “But as I could remember my own pain, I wanted to be there to support Tewabech. Tewabech screamed and struggled, and there was a lot of blood. I could not be in the same room; I had to go outside to cry.”
A group of women, men, girls, and boys are sitting in a circle on the grass in the blazing sun. A heated discussion is going on, with villagers addressing common problems and trying to find solutions to them.
Plan International started a community discussion project in Asnakech’s home village three years ago. The organization invited villagers, regardless of age or status, to come to these events, during which people were educated about harmful practices.
During these discussions, Asnakech understood that a C-section does not mean death and that FGM has no relevance to a girl’s morals or the sex of her children.
She also understood that her own difficulties were due to FGM, bride kidnapping, and child marriage.
“If I had realized the link between FGM and the consequences earlier, I would not have let my daughter be cut, but I was not informed or educated. I have apologized to her,” Asnakech says.
Kidnapped as a child, Askenech also speaks out against FGM in her village and school, hoping to prevent other mothers from repeating her mistake of cutting her daughters.
“The community discussions gave me self-confidence and dreams. My relatives laughed at me, asking what I get from going to school anymore. But I want to do it for myself and to spread the information I have obtained to others,” says Asnakech.
Working hard at school has paid off. Out of her class of 60 students, she is the fourth best. She wants to get a profession and earn money of her own so she can live by herself and separate from her husband.
“I am not proud of myself yet, but I plan to be once I accomplish my goals. My dream is to become a midwife so I can prevent FGM from happening and help out women with their deliveries.”
Endrias, 42, and Ayelech Ena, 32, are also taking part in the discussion group. Afterward, they head home, to a round-shape clay hut surrounded by emerald-green coffee fields.
Smoke spreads into the dimly-lit hut from an open fire. By the wall, three cows are chewing grass. A couple of meters apart are the mattresses of the couple and their two children.
Endrias and Ayelech look at each other with warmth in their eyes. But the marriage has not always gone smoothly.
“When we first married, I was only 14. At first, our love life caused me severe pains and I resisted my husband. Now I know that it was because of my FGM and being married too young,” says Ayelech.
A year after the wedding, the couple had their first daughter, and two years later their second. Both deliveries took two days. Ayelech had a fever. The second time, she had an infection and it took weeks for her to recover.
At 18, Ayelech fell pregnant again. When she went into labor, the pain lasted for days, but her cervix did not dilate.
Finally, Endrias decided to take Ayelech to a hospital, dozens of kilometers away. The family did not own a bicycle or a carriage, so he asked eight of their neighbors to come along. Each took turns carrying Ayelech, who had lost consciousness, on their backs.
“Finally, our little son, who had already died in the womb, was born in a C-section. We all cried,” says Endrias.
For a long time, Ayelech was weak. “I am still sad, because I cannot have more children and we do not have a son to carry on the family name,” says Ayelech.
“When I see Ayelech suffer I think of ways of making her sufferings right. I decided to see to it that our daughters would not have to go through FGM and that they would get a good education,” Enrias says.
The attitude change has paid off already. In three years, the dangers of FGM have been understood in the villages involved in the project, so much so that more than nine out of 10 girls born in these villages are spared FGM.