Ogote: Female genital cutting

Sidama Zone, in the Southern National and Nationalities Peoples’ Region (SNNPR), is one of the most densely populated areas in the country. It is a Zone where, by far the majority of people live in rural areas and are dependent on subsistence farming as a living. Generally the size of land holdings of subsistence farmers here is less than 0.8ha and as low as 0.4 ha, with an average family size of six people.

Women in Sidama do not have a particularly good status. Access to and control over resources in the household gives a considerable amount of power to that person. In Sidama resources at household level are typically agricultural, however, agricultural methods and approaches among subsistence farmers are very traditional and attitudes are conservative. Women generally are not considered as owning land; it is always in the control of the husband and in the case of female headed households a son or male relative is in control.

Women are not allowed to plough and in Sidama traditionally women are not allowed to control money. All of these customs are outlawed by the Federal Constitution, however as the level of legal literacy is minimal, traditional patrimonial practices in this domain prevail. Despite the fact that women may not have access to or control over agricultural resources, they contribute a considerable amount of labour on subsistence plots and household welfare; it is acknowledged that women labour for between 13 – 17 hours a day in rural areas.

Gender based violence (GBV) is prevalent in Ethiopia and in Sidama. GBV is any act which harms the physical, psychological and economical well being of a person due to gender inequality, impacting most on women and girls. GBV is without cultural, racial or geographic boundaries.  A recent study carried out by the World Health Organisation in Ethiopia found that 71% of ever partnered women had been subjected to physical or sexual violence over their lifetime. GBV includes: battery, abduction, rape, female genital circumcision (FGC) and other harmful traditional practices (HTPs), early marriage and other violence inflicted on women.  In Ethiopia, GBV is linked with customs and traditions of the society and is often misinterpreted as being associated with religion, for example FGC is often associated with the Muslim community,  however it is widespread among all religious groups in Ethiopia.  In SNNPR Protestants and Catholics have the highest prevalence rate in the community at 89%, Muslims with 76%, Orthodox with 57% and those with traditional faiths only 19%.

The practice of FGC is generally carried out to ensure virginity prior to marriage, to respect local norms, to control female sexuality etc, and according to research, 61% of respondents in SNNPR maintain that female traditional practitioners carry out the practice.  In Shebedino, where this photojournal is made the cutter is known as “ogote”. FGC is illegal, however still has a high prevalence rate; hence sourcing reliable figures is very difficult. As the practice is both illegal and a taboo subject; there are varying statistics about the prevalence in SNNPR. According to government figures, approximately 54% of girls in SNNPR are subjected to FGC. According to the EDHS, 76% of the women in rural Ethiopia are circumcised and in SNNPR 71% of those surveyed were circumcised.  Of those circumcised 77% were not educated, 71% completed primary education and 64% secondary and higher education.  With regard to supporting the practice, 33% of those in rural Ethiopia support it compared to 23% in SNNPR.  The impact of education on those who support the practice is very high as 37% of those with no education support the practice compared to 19% of women with primary and only 5% with secondary and higher levels of education. The correlation between education and FGC prevalence and support of the practice is important and relates to the benefits of education for women.

Asked why FGC is carried out 39% said it is performed to protect household utensils from being broken by the uncircumcised girl (the household utensil is often considered a metaphor for the husband’s penis, and an attempt to control the women’s sexual drive), 24% to preserve her virginity, 13 % to be faithful to her marriage and only 2% to respect the norms of society.

There are many impacts of FGC on women with regard to their physical and psychological well-being. As a result of FGC, menstruation can be difficult; labour is prolonged with a risk of haemorrhage; this can lead to cases of fistula; the transmission of HIV/AIDS; discomfort during sexual intercourse; resulting in marital problems etc.


Maritu Desalenge lives in Alowo Anus Kebele, in the district of Shebedino. Maritu is originally from a neighbouring Kebele (district), where her parents still live. She has 7 siblings, 5 bothers and 2 sisters.  Her brothers are all younger than her and all married. Maritu is 50 years old and was widowed last year; her husband’s tomb has a large gravestone and is on the land close to her house. She has three children; two daughters and one son. The daughters are 15 and 9 years old and the boy 11. Maritu and her family are Protestant.

Maritu, for many years worked as an “ogote”; this is a person who carries our circumcision on females; it is typically an older woman in the community who carries out this work. In her district there were many reasons for carrying out circumcision or “cutting a girl”; local opinion considered that if a girl was not cut she would be irresponsible and squander the household money; she would break the household utensils; she would be a bad cook; she would have loose sexual morals and would be unfaithful in marriage.

In order to circumcise a girl, Maritu used a razor blade to cut off the girl’s clitoris, which she would throw to the scavenging animals in the compound.   Inevitably there would be a lot of bleeding and in order to stop the haemorrhaging she would cover the wound with a leaf of enset or false banana plant (which has supposedly blood coagulating properties). Not only  is the girl at risk of excessive  blood loss or infection as a result of the practice and unhygienic method of cutting, but she also risks huge psychological impact after undergoing mutilation that local people proudly  defend as part of their culture. The practice is supported locally by many mothers because they fear that if their daughter is not “cut” she will be rejected socially and will be an outcast.

Typically a girl is “cut” between the age of 14 and 16 years old, when she is on the verge of marrying. Traditionally, when a  man decides to marry, he identifies the girl he wants and consults with the elders in the village, who will agree or disagree to the marriage (not all people follow this traditional approach). Then the girl needs to be “cut”. This can take place in her family home or she goes to the ogote’s house. Another three or four women will be in attendance to hold the girl down and to prevent her from moving while being circumcised. The ogote’s fee depends on the circumstances; if she carries out the circumcision in the girl’s house she gets paid 10 birr, some food and butter (used to put in the hair to moisturise it); if she does it at her own house, the fee is 5 birr.

However, ,Maritu no longer carries out female circumcision on young girls;  she was a participant in a programme called “Community Conversations” organised by GOAL Ethiopia, with the primary aim of discussing issues around HIV/AIDs in the community and they then identify strategies to minimise risk of exposure and transmission. Female circumcision was identified, not only as a harmful traditional practice, but as a high risk activity in the transmission of HIV.

Now having ceased working as an ogote, Maritu tries to spread the word in her community about the risks and repercussions of this horrible practice; the transmission of disease like AIDS by means of an infected blade; the frequent infection and loss of blood; the trauma suffered by the girl and the long term consequences on her life. Maritu regrets the pain and suffering she inflicted on girls that were subjected to this tragic custom.

Maritu’s daily life begins at 6 in the morning, cleaning the house and then preparing the breakfast. The breakfast consists of kocho and tea. Kocho is made from enset or false banana and is a typical bread in Sidama. Making of kocho is very labour intensive; the tuber of the mature tree is dug out of the ground; scraped into a fibrous pulp with a metal tool like a large comb; it is then beaten and kneaded; buried in leaves in the ground for a number of weeks; at different stages it is taken out of the ground, beaten and kneaded again and reburied; eventually, after about 6 weeks, the pulp is ripe and ready to use; it is kneaded and rolled and cooked on a griddle over the open fire in the house.

After breakfast Maritu takes care of the cattle and the land. By the time she gets to caring for her garden, she only spends an hour working there as she is tired. On her land, she grows enset, coffee and khat. When she needs money, she sells the coffee and khat in order to survive. Previously, her husband was in charge of this work; however since his death she has assumed this responsibility. She has three cows, two ewes, as well as several hens. Altogether she tends the cattle three times per day for approx 1 hour each time.

All of Maritu’s children attend school, and when they have left for the day she cleans the yard. When she finishes the yard, she goes to the water point, where she gathers about 20 litres of water; she goes there twice in the day; it takes an hour to travel each way; she spends at least 4 hours a day collecting water, carrying the 40 litres in a gerry can on her back. During the weekend, her children go to gather the water.

In the afternoon, after collecting the water, she prepares the supper and cleans the house. Around 7pm the family eats supper.  Sometime in the evening neighbours visit or she calls to their houses for a coffee and a chat.  Maritu goes to bed around the 10pm. This is a 17 hour day, most of which has been spent in hard work to maintain her household.

Maritu’s income comes from the sale of khat, milk, eggs and butter in the market.  She has lost the income from circumcising young girls; however she says she is able to survive with what she now has and considers herself quite self-sufficient. When she has any financial needs, she sells more of her products; for example the family drink very little milk as is it is primarily for sale for income.  The family’s diet is basic and typical of Sidama; kocho, injera  and shiro, tea and on occasion some milk.

Maritu has a very good knowledge of HIV matters.  She is also aware of malaria and uses a mosquito net when sleeping at night. If she or her children suffer form malaria or any other illnesses, they attend the local health facility, which is about 3 km walk from her house.

1 Euro = 23 birr

Khat is a plant; the leaves are chewed and have a slightly narcotic effect.  It is a common cash crop.

Injera is a staple food in Ethiopia; a large flat pancake made from fermented grain, used to eat sauce with by hand

Shiro is also a staple, generally of poor households; a sauce made from ground chick peas, chilli and onion and eaten with injera.

Javier Acebal

About the author: Javier Acebal

I'm a photographer based in Dakar (West Africa). I love to document cultures and people! (but also working for tourism industry).

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