A Flash of Light

Christine Keyser

Bogaletch Gebre
Bogaletch Gebre will never forget the day when her aunts led her to the circumciser’s hut in their rural village in Ethiopia. The terrified 6-year-old girl cried out in excruciating pain as the rusty knife slashed her genitals, mutilating her young body to bind her to a life of servitude to males. In the background, beyond her own muffled screams, she heard her mother pleading, “I wish they would do away with this!”

Even though other village girls—including her two sisters—had died from infections from female genital mutilation, “we both knew it had to be done to make me a whole woman. It is called ‘removing the dirt,’ not circumcision,” Gebre told a hushed, sold-out auditorium at the Bioneers Conference in the San Francisco Bay Area in October. It was the first time she had ever publicly discussed the personal horror that had shaped her ambition to dedicate her life to the empowerment, education, training and public health of Ethiopian women.

Through her own stubborn determination and the sacrifices of her mother, who took on her household chores, Gebre became the first girl in her village, Zato, to be educated beyond the fourth grade. She attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem on a full scholarship and later became the first woman invited to join the science faculty at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University. But years earlier, as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Massachusetts, Gebre awakened from her physical and emotional numbness, and she experienced rage and horror over what was done to her as a child.

“I understood the purpose of female genital excision was to excise my mind, excise my ability to live my life with all my senses intact,” she says. “I was never meant to be educated, to think for myself, because I am a woman from a small village in Ethiopia. It’s a system that looks at woman as an object of servitude. She starts serving her family before she even knows who she is—at the age of six. When she marries, she is literally sold to the highest bidder. From one servitude to another servitude, we are exploited.”

Now Gebre—whose first name means “a flash of light”—is determined to ensure that other Ethiopian girls will have the same opportunities for education and self-fulfillment. “In Ethiopia, we have as much an education famine as a food famine. To finish high school in rural Ethiopia is really like getting a Ph.D. in this country,” she says.

In 1997, Gebre founded the Kembatta Women’s Self-Help Center-Ethiopia, or KMG, a 7.5-acre women’s community in the Kembatta district of Ethiopia where she grew up, located about 260 miles south of the capital, Addis Ababa. “I began to dream of integrating health, livelihood and environment for women,” she says. “For once we will see women as a whole people.”

To raise funds, she ran five marathon races in Los Angeles. In 1985, she had founded Parents International Ethiopia to raise funds for famine victims; she has now shifted the group’s focus to women’s public health and education. The European Union funded most of KMG, which includes the first public library in the region and the first “dialogue house” for women to congregate and discuss their concerns.

KMG is establishing community-based health clinics, organizing women’s work cooperatives and constructing potable water projects to relieve women of the backbreaking task of carrying water so they will have time to attend school. “Poor women don’t like breaks. They like opportunities. Once you give them that they run with it,” Gebre says. “They asked us for a library, water, bridge, school, women’s center and women’s health clinic. When we provide that, they create their own solutions.”

KMG also has established legal clinics to teach women their legal rights under Ethiopia’s constitution. A growing number of mothers are refusing to allow their daughters to undergo female genital mutilation. Some traditional circumcisers are throwing down their knives, and young girls are standing up for their rights and saying no.

But a major thrust of KMG’s community organizing is to eradicate not just female genital mutilation, but the practice of abducting girls who are then raped if they refuse to marry their captors. The police and courts have often looked the other way, but KMG launched a community-based movement to reverse that intransigence. Since 1999, 10 girls have come forward to charge their abductors, who have been successfully tried and imprisoned.

“What is good for women is good for the community,” Gebre says. “What I discovered in our work is not changing the whole society at once, but to change one person at a time. And it works.”

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