Almost all girls were cut in her Ethiopian village. Not anymore, thanks to her.

January 26, 2017
Bogaletch Gebre remembers the day when she was cut in her village in southern Ethiopia. It was the 1960s and she was about 12 years old. Residents called the rite of passage “cleansing the dirt”; today it is commonly known around the world as female genital mutilation (FGM).

“My sisters, mothers, friends were crying,” Ms. Gebre recalls. “My mother was really agonized. ‘I wish they would do away with it,’ she said. She didn’t want to do it, but she felt she had to.” Gebre nearly bled to death, and it took her two months to recuperate.

At the time in this predominantly Christian country, nearly every girl underwent FGM. “My parents did it simply from misconception and misunderstanding. They thought it was mandated by religion. They didn’t even know where it comes from,” Gebre says.

When she was growing up, FGM was a taboo subject – even though her older sister died during childbirth because of complications from the FGM she underwent as a girl. It wasn’t until decades later as a graduate student in the United States that Gebre learned more about what had happened to her and her family.

When Gebre found out that FGM is a needless, harmful practice, she became incensed. She eventually left her PhD program in epidemiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in 1995 she returned to Kembata Tembaro, her home region in Ethiopia. In 1997, she and her younger sister started KMG, a nonprofit whose initials stand for Kembatti Mentti-Gezimma-Tope, which means “women of Kembata working together.” The organization aims to end FGM and help girls, women, and the rural poor.

Today, KMG is credited with virtually eliminating FGM in Kembata, a region of 680,000. A key reason for its success has been its focus on “community conversations,” giving residents a chance to think through the issues.

Seated in her office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, Gebre wears an elegant silk scarf and dark glasses because of an eye impairment. “We cannot be mutilated alive in the 21st century,” she declares forcefully. “There should not be any culture or religion that puts us in that position. It should not be allowed in any name to demean our humanity or women’s personhood.”

In 30 countries around the world, at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, according to UNICEF. More than half of them are from Egypt, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.

FGM is practiced by both Muslim and Christian communities, although neither the Quran nor the Bible mentions it. The procedure is traditionally considered necessary for a girl or woman to eventually marry.

As a child, Gebre defied expectations that girls shouldn’t go to school. She demanded admission into her local school where girls weren’t allowed after a certain age. Eventually she won a government scholarship to attend the only girls’ boarding school at the time in Addis Ababa. From there, she won another scholarship to study physiology

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