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December 2002/January 2003
Bogaletch Gebre: A “Flash of Light”

Empowering Ethiopian Women to Fight for their Rights
By Christine Keyser


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

But 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 and training, and public health of Ethiopian women, and the eradication of female genital mutilation.

Through her own stubborn determination and the sacrifices of her mother who took on her household chores, Gebre became the first girl ever in her village of Zato to be educated beyond the fourth grade. She attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem on a full scholarship and became the first woman invited to join the science faculty at Addis Ababa University.

Years later, as a Fulbright Scholar in epidemiology and public health at the University of Massachusetts, Gebre awakened from her physical and emotional numbness and 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 said. “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 a woman as an object of servitude. She starts serving her family at the age of six—before she even knows who she is. When she marries she is literally sold to the highest bidder. From one servitude to another servitude, we are exploited.”

Now Gebre—whose name Bogaletch means “a flash of light”—is determined that other Ethiopian girls 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 explained.

In 1997, Gebre founded the Kembatta Women’s Self-Help Center in Ethiopia (KMG), a seven-acre women’s community in Kembatta, where she grew up, a district located about 265 miles south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. “I began to dream of integrating health, livelihood, and environment for women. For once we will see women as whole people,” she vowed.

To raise funds she ran five marathon races in Los Angeles, where she had earned a Ph.D. in epidemiology from UCLA. In 1985, she had founded Parents International Ethiopia to raise funds for Ethiopian famine victims; she now shifted the group’s focus to women’s public health and education. The European Union funded most of the Kembatta Women’s Center, which includes the first public library in the region and the first women’s 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 on their backs 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 said. “They asked us for a library, water, bridge, school, women’s center, women’s health clinic. When we provide that they create their own solutions.”

KMG focuses on three interrelated areas to give Kembatta women and their families the skills they need to survive and transform their communities:
· Health: reproductive health rights, including elimination of female genital mutilation and prevention of HIV and AIDS;
· Livelihood: vocational training and women’s entrepreneurial skills;
· Environment: restoration of damaged watersheds and other environmental degradation.

A major thrust of KMG’s community organizing is to eradicate customary practices, such as female genital mutilation and abduction and rape of girls, that keep women in bondage. Female genital mutilation is a leading source for spreading AIDS because girls and young women are easily infected from open vaginal wounds. In Ethiopia, girls 15 to 19 years of age have a five to seven times higher rate of AIDS infection than boys their age. “Until we restore the health of our women we cannot restore the health of our communities,” Gebre said.

KMG has established legal clinics to teach women their legal rights under Ethiopia’s constitution and is making inroads in empowering women to fight for their rights.

“When women discover who they are they literally wake up,” Gebre said. A growing number of mothers are refusing to allow their daughters to undergo female genital mutilation, either by village circumcisers or at medical clinics; traditional circumcisers are throwing down their knives; and young girls are standing up for their rights and saying NO! Gebre showed videos of village girls proudly holding placards declaring that they have refused to be cut, and happy intact brides at their weddings, who previously would have been shunned by their entire villages for refusing circumcision.

Three years ago when a 16 year-old student who was working on KMG’s AIDS project was abducted, the community organized and enlisted the local police to secure the girl’s release after three weeks. For the first time her abductor was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison. “To us she was Rosa Parks,” Gebre said. The girl proudly addressed 4,000 people at an HIV/AIDS rally in Kembatta and told other girls to never accept being forced into a life of servitude.

In the past, the police and courts looked the other way when girls were abducted and raped if they refused to marry their abductors. But KMG has launched a community-based movement to reverse that trend and has enlisted the police as their allies. Since 1999, ten girls have come forward to charge their abductors, who have been imprisoned. “What is good for women is good for the community,” she noted. With KMG, Gebre has discovered that their work “is not changing the whole society at once, but one person at a time. And it works.”

Christine Keyser
is a freelance journalist who lives in the Bay Area. Her articles have been published in In These Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, San Jose Mercury News, and other publications. Keyser is also an environmental and animal activist and rescues homeless animals. For information about KMG, contact Parents International Ethiopia at (213) 833-6314,, or P.O. Box 7643, Mission Hills, CA 91346; or directly at or KMG, P.O. Box 13439, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.



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