Penelope in Ethiopia

While coding a document about female genital mutilation (FGM) in Ethiopia, I found that the education of women makes no significant difference in the practice of FGM.  The prevalence of FGM according to woman’s level of education is:
No education – 80.4%
Primary education—78.4%
Secondary education—78.2%

“The results can only be explained by the social and cultural pressures in the country, so that even the most enlightened and educated women do not venture to discard the tradition even when they oppose it in principle.”

In Ethiopia, FGM is believed to be necessary for spiritual cleanliness.  It is a rite of passage needed for social acceptance and seen as necessary for hygienic and aesthetic reasons. The community enforces FGM by using fear of punishment by God or supernatural forces, poems and songs that celebrate circumcision and deride uncircumcised girls, and forcing FGM on women from other tribes marrying into the group.  The community also enforces FGM through divorce and refusal to marry uncircumcised women.
This last method seems the most impactful. Though education can usually dispel myths of FGM being necessary for good hygiene, linked to Islamic or Christian beliefs, or able to prevent a newborn’s death, education will not always grant a woman social acceptance or guarantee her a husband.  Education, it seems, is not the be-all end-all answer to the world’s human rights questions.

I imagine that mothers in Ethiopia who perform FGM on their daughters believe that they are protecting them from ruin – the ruin that comes from being an unmarriageable or divorced woman in a traditional patriarchal society.  As our own database reports, a girl in Ethiopia “is expected to be shy and obedient, not to speak up in front of adult[s], in particular men. Her focus shall be entirely on her future reproductive and productive roles in the household of her husband. She shall respect and obey her husband and of course remain faithful to him.”

The report does not specify what kind of education the Ethiopian women received.  I will not assume that education specifically teaching the physical and psychological consequences of FGM would not help to suppress the custom.  For all I know, the women could have been taught in school that FGM is necessary.  But I’d like to address a larger issue.

As Marilyn Waring wrote in Counting for Nothing, it is women who “reproduce social relations that have a deleterious effect on their health.  It was mothers who bound feet, it is women who perform clitoridectomy and other forms of female circumcision on young girls.  It is mothers who refuse to believe or deny their daughters’ reports of the father, uncle, brother, or neighbour’s molestation.”

All over the world, the inferiority of women is enforced on a daily basis.  The solution is not for outsiders to campaign for change, for governments to pass new laws, or for women to go to more years of school.  To be sure, all of these things can and will have an effect on the status of women.  But they are solutions aimed at the manifestations of the problem, not at the problem itself.

In order for the governments, the leaders, the judges, the law officers, the husbands, and the fathers to see women differently, women must see themselves differently.  They must see their own inherent worth.  They must know that their lives, their voices, and their bodies have a value of their own.  Only then will they be able to stand up for themselves; only then will they be able to pass on this understanding to their daughters.

I recently saw the film Penelope, in which a girl born with a pig’s snout is shut away from the world by her parents, waiting for a blue-blooded man to fall in love with her and break the curse that caused her ugliness.  She spends ages 18 to 25 meeting potential suitors who are lured by the promise of a substantial dowry, only to have them run away at the first glimpse of her face.  Penelope’s mother repeatedly tells her that getting married is her only chance for happiness.

But Penelope finally learns that she is the one who needs to learn to love herself.  She breaks free from her overprotective mother (a woman who believes, “That’s what mothers do with daughters; they talk about how to look prettier”).  Penelope goes out into the world, refuses to marry a man who does not love her, and ultimately declares, “I like myself the way I am.”

—by LES


3 thoughts on “Penelope in Ethiopia

  1. GoodReason says:

    Agreed–women must think of themselves differently! Yet, can they, if they are so economically vulnerable, where men are not? If a girl’s economic survival depends on marriage, how can they ever think of themselves differently?

  2. LES says:

    In my thoughts, I mentioned awareness campaigns, laws, and education, but I failed to mention initiatives which do address the fundamental issue of a woman’s economic vulnerability in and out of marriage. This was a mistake, especially considering all that I have learned recently from Marilyn Waring!

    I think this recent report from the Population Reference Bureau says it best:
    “A woman’s marriageability is one of the key considerations in the continuation of FGM. Therefore, socioeconomic development initiatives in Africa are important, as they can eradicate poverty and enhance the economic status of women. If education and career opportunities for women are fostered, dependency on men for their livelihoods will decrease. Once women perceive other viable options for security and survival besides marriage, it provides them with an opportunity to cease the practice. Economic development programs must especially target and empower women by providing microfinance, skills development, and more opportunities for education to the girl child.” (

  3. sms says:

    I like the Penelope connection. Sometimes we do have to make a radical leap away from our past and our culture. But it is extremely difficult.

    Even after the economic vulnerability is addressed there will still be a substantial portion of women and mothers that will feel it is their cultural or religious obligation to perform FGM. No amount of money is going to fix that alone. Their commitment is beyond purchase in many instances.

    Ethiopia has recognized that and developed a 5 fold approach to address culture, economy, religion all at the same time. It is good to see that they are at least trying to make an environment that is more conducive to mothers and girls making that radical leap to freedom.

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