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Early marriage and female genital cutting in Ethiopia: Exploring the links

Idil (age 11) has not and will not be exposed to FGM/C. Her mother experienced FGM/C and suffered a fistula following the birth of her tenth child. She has refused FGM/C for her own daughters and speaks out against the practice. Photo credit: Tim Freccia/World Vision

Nell Williams of World Vision UK travelled to Ethiopia to meet girls at risk of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and their families. In this blog, Nell shares some of their voices and explores the links between FGM/C and early marriage.  

A simple understanding of FGM/C and early marriage might lead you to believe that knowledge is the problem: that these practices stem from obedience to tradition and ignorance of the risks.

The reality is so much more complex. Mothers I met in Ethiopia described impossible choices in raising their girls.

Female genital cutting: a prerequisite for marriage in many communities

Where opportunities for education and employment are few, a woman’s future depends on the marriage she makes. Tradition dictates that a woman must be sexually ‘pure’ before marriage. So parents are pressured to marry their daughters young as testament to their innocence.

Parents are pressured to marry their daughters young as testament to their innocence

In parts of Ethiopia, FGM/C is seen as a pre-requisite for marriage, not only to safeguard virginity, but to enhance popular feminine virtues: the qualities of a wife and mother. Mothers and fathers of girls told us:

“If she is not cut, she will break all the pots in the kitchen.”

“If a girl is not cut, who will eat the food that she prepares?”

“Cutting controls a girl’s sexual feelings, that is why the community like to do it”

“Being cut disciplines a girl’s mind and her reproductive parts, so she is more in control”.

These beliefs are rooted in gender inequality, whereby a woman’s value and life chances are defined by her marriage.

Families we met in Somaliland explained the meaning of FGM/C in preserving the sexual ‘innocence’ and pre-marital virginity of girls. Here – where 98% of girls experience FGM/C[1] – we found an unexpected link with early marriage.  In communities that abandoned “type three” FGM/C on health grounds, some girls feared that they might be seen as less sexually ‘pure’, and that early marriage could be an alternative means to safeguard their reputation.

Addressing FGM/C and early marriage together

This is one example, which can’t be generalised, but shows just how critical it is to examine the links between the two practices. Interventions to challenge either one may have unintended consequences upon the other.

These lessons from Ethiopia and Somaliland show that FGM/C and early marriage can only be understood – and meaningfully challenged – with a contextual understanding of the social norms that drive and shape them.

In Ethiopia, the health consequences of FGM/C are becoming more widely understood. But knowledge alone is not power, as one mother explained:

“We all know the effects of FGM but we know it’s easier for a girl who has been cut to get married. Girls who have not been cut will feel bad, so what are we supposed to do?”

We all know the effects of FGM but we know it’s easier for a girl who has been cut to get married.

Early marriage – and in some cases FGM/C – are embraced by many parents as measures to protect their girls from what they perceive as worse risks of pre-marital sex, destitution, abduction[2] and sexual violence.

In some cases, these practices constitute ‘least–worst’ options for parents. Parents seek early marriage as a means to protect and provide for their girls in adolescence.

One mother stressed that she would love to send her daughter to school, but she didn’t feel she had a choice:

‘Every mother wants to keep her children close, under her care . . . the high school is far away. If we send her there she might get abducted’.

Another agreed:

 “I will get my (12-year-old) daughter married any time from now. It is better for us to find a good man for her than to be abducted.

Parents face impossible choices when delaying marriage and sending their daughters to school poses this level of risk. Girls will not be free from early marriage until they can attend school in safety, until their parents have the means to feed and provide for all their daughters. Until they can give their girls the childhood that they wish for them.

Meanwhile, parents of girls resisting FGM/C stand in the face of social norms and religious beliefs that have taken root through generations. Another mother shared:

“I don’t want her to know it [FGM/C] is coming, but I am afraid God will punish me if I don’t do it.”

A young girl told me:

“If I am not cut, my prayers will not go up to Allah”.

But there is hope.

Religious leaders can be catalysts for change around child marriage and FGM/C

Where beliefs are so deeply embedded with faith, religious leaders can be a catalyst for change.

I met Christian and Islamic faith leaders who are passionate about ending FGM/C and early marriage. They have unique influence to challenge the beliefs and behaviour, with their leadership and teaching.  They are refusing to perform marriage ceremonies with girls under the legal age of marriage.

And they are leading by example. As one community worker told us:

“A religious leader not circumcising [sic] his daughter . . . is a much more powerful symbol than imprisoning circumcisers, or fining the family”.

Religious leaders play a key role in preventing early marriage

Sheikh Elmi Ismail Muhumed works with World Vision’s support to stop FGM/C in his community, in Somaliland.

As we approach the Girls’ Summit this July, we must hear the voices of these communities, parents, girls and boys. To end these practices within a generation, we have to explore the links between them, and monitor how changes to either one may impact upon the other.

We must also work with faith and community leaders as they challenge these practices at the grassroots: changing beliefs and behaviour for a future free from FGM/C and early marriage.

Over one hundred girls and parents shared their stories to shape World Vision UK’s newly launched research paper, ‘Exploring the links: Female genital mutilation/ cutting and early marriage.’ You can download it here

[1] UNICEF (2013) Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: A statistical overview and exploration of the dynamics of change
[2] In Ethiopia, abduction refers to forced marriage, often accompanied by violence.