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Rural Ethiopian Women Suffer From Traditional Practices

By Yohannes Ruphael, Panafrican News Agency, 19 December 2000

Addis Ababa—In the absence of piped water, Ethiopian rural women are obliged to travel long distances every day to fetch water from wells which are usually very far apart.

However, this daily exercise exposes them to virulent abductors and rapists.

Fifteen-year-old Alemitu Abera who lived in a village some 150-km west of the capital Addis Ababa, was one such victim.

I was forced by the community elders to marry this old man who abducted me on my way to fetch water. I never saw him before and I did not like him at all. So I had to run to Addis Ababa. she recounted.

Alemitu is now a bar maid in Kazanchis, a popular area known for its abundant bars and night clubs.

Newspaper reports recently said 29 girls were abducted from a village school near Addis Ababa.

It is a pity that abductors get away with their crimes because of the customary mediations of community elders, lamented a staunch feminist.

There are 30 million women in Ethiopia’s rural population of 54 million. The country’s aggregate population is estimated at 63 million people.

Almost all rural women have a subordinate role to play in the society.

Gender discrimination exists. It is part of the social system and runs through all aspects of life at family and household levels; community as well as at institutional levels, explains Bogalech Aldemu of the Women’s Affairs Department at the Prime Minister Office.

Almost everywhere in rural Ethiopia, land ownership is patriarchal and land is registered in a man’s name who inherits it from his parents.

Most married women have access to the use of land but in the majority of cases, control remains in the hands of their husbands.

According to a UNICEF report, women in rural Ethiopia usually work 15-18 hours per day and are responsible for over half of subsistence agricultural production.

In addition, women mostly undertake the most time consuming domestic chores, which contribute to the deterioration of their health condition and leaves them with precious little time for child care and rearing. the report adds.

With 200 deaths per 1,000 live-births, Ethiopia ranks among the bottom 20 nations in under five mortality.

Statistics reveal that 17,000 women die each year as a result of complications arising from pregnancy.

Some 511,000 children die before their fifth birthday.

Over 5 million children are underweight, and over 6 million are stunted.

Daily per capita calorie intake is only 1,621, according to the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute.

Most rural women, especially the young ones who run away to urban centres and especially to the capital, Addis Ababa, eventually end up becoming prostitutes .

They run away to cities mainly to escape traditional practices.

Rural girls are given out in marriage as early as 12, 13, or 14 years. The couple’s parents generally arrange such marriages.

I was married off at 12, just some months after I was circumcised. I had not even recovered from the pain when my parents married me according to tradition; and I could not live with the husband who was much older and beats me all the time. So I had to run away to Addis Ababa, says Mehert Lemma a bar owner in Kazanchis.

Female genital mutilation is still widely practised in both rural and urban Ethiopia.

According to a study, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of Ethiopian women whose population is estimated at 30 million, are genitally mutilated, with an estimated 4 million undergoing infibulation.

Although the National Committee of Traditional Mal- practices is doing its level best in its anti-female genital mutilation campaign, so far its efforts seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

We have to abide by our tradition. Women have to be circumcised to keep them subservient, obedient and protect them from evil spirit. All of my four daughters and my grand daughters have been circumcised, says 60 year-old Fantu Belay proudly.

he pain was horrible. I could not go against the wishes of my parents, besides I did not want to be a laughing stock in my village, recounted Mehret Lemma, adding, my parents and the old woman who performed the terrible circumcision are to blame; I still feel the pain after sex.

According to the World Health Organisation, female genital mutilation causes both immediate and long term health complications affecting women’s physical and mental well being.

Bleeding, shocks, infections, HIV-AIDS are among the immediate health problems of genital mutilation, says a medical doctor.

The National Committee on traditional mal-practices and other concerned NGO’s are making efforts to bring about behavioural change in the society with the participation of the mass media, religious leaders and traditional healers in dispelling the myth surrounding female genital mutilation.

It is an up hill battle! a foreign woman who works for an international NGO sighs furiously. She fails to understand the deeply embedded tradition of the Ethiopian society.

Although the Ethiopian constitution stipulates that the the state shall enforce the right of women to eliminate the influence of harmful customs, there seems to be a long way to go before any change of attitude is brought about in this conservative Ethiopian society.