Bogaletch Gebre cofounded an organization that’s credited with virtually eliminating female genital mutilation in the part of southern Ethiopia where she grew up. A key reason for the organization’s success has been its focus on ‘community conversations.’
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.