Story published in Me Naiset Magazine, 1/2012.
Text: Maija Koski, Photos: Katja Tähjä
A Mutilated Life
Ethiopian Bezunesh Lombebo, 26, was circumcised in the worst possible way when she was 10. Having experienced the pain and terror all over again, first in bed with her husband and then while giving birth to her son, she had had enough. “I will do everything in my power to make this horrible tradition come to an end.”
Theology student Bezunesh Lombebo gesticulates animatedly as she delivers her presentation. A classroom full of men are listening and can barely wait to give their opinions. The presentation is being held at the theological seminary at the Mekane Yesus church of Addis Abeba, and the topic is not particularly conventional. Bezunesh studies the misuse of the Bible’s texts and how they are used to justify the subjection of women.
Bezunesh looks you in the eye with uncommon intensity as she speaks. She looks 10 years older than she really is. That is no wonder. What is a wonder is that she is still alive. Like millions of other Ethiopian women, she was circumcised according to an ancient tradition. In the name of propriety.
Girls in their gowns
It was a freezing cold day in August, in the middle of the rainy season in 1995. Bezunesh Lombebo, her little sister, and over 30 other girls from the rural town Durame were gathered for a great celebration. Bezunesh was 10 years old, her sister eight. Some of the girls were even younger and some had already turned 17.
The heroines of the occasion were wearing new gowns their families had given them. Families, friends and neighbors had all gathered in one house to celebrate – to dance, play, and talk all night through. Nobody slept. The guests had eaten until their stomachs were full, but the girls’ stomachs had been emptied with the help of a natural laxative.
Fifteen days earlier, Bezunesh had been told that it was time for her to be circumcised. Whatever that meant.
– We knew that something painful awaited us. The closer the morning came, the more horrified we were. My heart was racing. Over and over again, we ran out from the house one at a time to cry out our fear, Bezunesh says.
Yet, nothing had prepared Bezunesh for what awaited her the next morning.
At dawn, the girls were separated. The beautiful new dress was stripped off and Bezunesh was clothed in a simple robe. Her uncle led her out and sat her on a tiny chair. His force was needed to keep Bezunesh down. Otherwise, she was surrounded only by women: her mother, aunts, and neighbors.
– They were all crying, as they knew what I was about to go through.
The circumcision was performed by a familiar woman who did it for a living.
Bezunesh’s uncle covered her eyes and took a firm grip around her with his other arm. Bezunesh’s legs were spread apart, and the woman cut off her clitoris and all her external genitalia with a razor blade.
– I could feel the pain all the way to my brain, Bezunesh tells, holding her hand on top of her head.
Now, 16 years later, she estimates that the procedure lasted about three minutes. She was awake the whole time, even while she was carried to her hut into her own bed. Then she blacked out.
The tribe into which one is born in Ethiopia is not a trivial matter. Even today, only one-tenth of Afari girls in Northern Ethiopia avoid the worst kind of circumcision, while girls living in the capital, Addis Abeba, rarely have to undergo it. The mutilation of girls is not coupled with religion, as it is performed by Muslims, Christians, and animists alike.
However, it is clearly more common in the rural areas than in cities. And the rural areas are where most of Ethiopia’s 90 million people live.
Anti-circumcision work has been carried out in Ethiopia for decades and the circumcision of girls was prohibited by law a few years ago. However, the tradition, which is thousands of years old, still persists in the culture.
Bezunesh knows that the same people who advocate the cause during the day perform circumcisions at night.
The tradition stems from the men’s will to control the sexuality of the women in their tribe, but nowadays it is especially women – mothers, grandmothers, and mothers-in-law – who sustain it. Circumcised girls are the community’s pride, uncircumcised ones are considered a disgrace. For the women performing circumcision, it is also a means of earning a living, and they cannot afford to give it up.
But what kind of a mother lets her daughter be circumcised after having gone through the same thing, knowing how it affects the rest of your life?
Bezunesh Lombebo’s mother was an ordinary woman at the Kambata tribe: uneducated, she was a Christian who was respectful of her family and husband. Circumcision was not an obligation dictated by religion, but tradition. From generation to generation, girls were taught that if they were not circumcised, they would turn out as reckless man-eaters, as well as clumsy women who would drop things. What kind of a homemaker is that? And a homemaker is still more or less the only role an Ethiopian woman has.
Bezunesh’s mother did take care of her daughter and her sister, who had gone through the same thing, during the entire recovery period.
Thirty days and nights
When Bezunesh finally woke up in her hut, she had been unconscious for two hours. Her family had already feared she was going to die.
Unlike in most cases when the worst form of circumcision is performed, Bezunesh was not stitched up; instead, the open wound was doused with a mixture of kerosene, raw egg, and butter. During the next weeks, Bezunesh’s mother cleaned the wound and fed her daughter just enough so that she didn’t starve, as going to the bathroom was unthinkable.
– My mother kept repeating, “Don’t care” and “Don’t be worried, you’ll be fine,” Bezunesh says.
Her sister healed enough that she was able to get on her feet after 15 days. It was considered a successful recovery. Bezunesh had to lie down for another 15 days. The woman who had performed the circumcision had been drunk, and had cut Bezunesh more crudely than she had originally intended.
School started in September, and Bezunesh had to get up.
– At first I tried to walk with my legs apart. When I finally started healing, the memory of what had happened also started to fade.
During the next decade, the things that reminded her of the circumcision were merely the difficulty of urinating, and, later, long and painful periods that only barely came out. Otherwise, Bezunesh tried to forget.
A long conversation
It is early evening. The theological seminary is held in the district of Mekanissa. The yard is full of students. Bezunesh Lombebo’s day started at 8 a.m. with the first lesson, and it ends as late as 11 p.m., when the library closes. Bezunesh is in the last year of her studies. She hopes that after graduation, she will find a job down south in the city of Irgalem, where her husband and half-year-old son already live.
It was in this school, surrounded by corrugated iron, that Bezunesh met her husband. Tasfey Alemu was one year above Bezunesh and nine years older.
– He is a grown man, wise and spiritual, Bezunesh says when she is asked what she fell in love with about her husband.
– And kind, she adds, blushing.
The couple got married in 2010. Before that, they had met at the seminary’s cafeteria and on the yard’s paths for half a year before Tasfey proposed to Bezunesh.
Bezunesh wanted to get married, but at the same time she felt the horror creep up to her. Getting married meant having children, which meant having sex.
– I asked my husband to sit down, and I told him how badly I had been mutilated. I told him how terrified I was of married life. He was sad and confessed to also being scared. But he encouraged me and told me I had no reason to be scared. He promised to be gentle.
Bezunesh says she had pushed the memory of the circumcision so far back before the wedding that she had trouble recalling the pain. After the wedding night, she had no trouble at all.
– For three days I could not move. Every instance of intercourse feels like being circumcised all over again.
Bezunesh holds her head, as she always does when speaking of the event that ended her childhood.
– But married life did get a bit easier over time, she adds.
A useless woman
But how did Bezunesh’s husband react to inflicting such pain on his wife through sex?
Bezunesh avoids the question several times. Then it turns out that the couple has not spoken about it since the talk before the wedding. It is not part of the culture that a woman could express her feelings to her husband.
– He is very patient with me, is all Bezunesh agrees to say.
However, the patience or kindness of her husband was of no use when Bezunesh found out she was pregnant a little over a year ago. It was no surprise, but still it exceeded all of Bezunesh’s fears.
– I was sure I couldn’t give birth. And if I could, how could I take it.
Bezunesh lived in the capital near the country’s best hospitals, but still she wrestled with her terror all alone. The pregnancy was monitored on top of her belly, and Bezunesh never brought up her circumcision. A Cesarean section was out of the question anyway, because her husband did not agree to it.
– Here it is thought that a woman is useless after that, as she cannot perform her house duties.
When the labor pains started, last May, Bezunesh tried to get into a particular hospital. However, she was not admitted and was sent to another hospital. Even though it is common for circumcised women to give birth in Ethiopia, Bezunesh’s situation shocked even the doctors. She was sent to a third hospital that dealt with the most severe cases.
– The doctor immediately asked which tribe I belonged to – “You haven’t even been stitched,” he said. “This was just left to close up by itself.”
Bezunesh was admitted to the hospital. However, she was placed in the hallway, as all of the rooms were full. There she sat all night by herself, suffering from contractions that led nowhere.
In the morning, Bezunesh was taken in the delivery room. The labor pains continued the whole day and into the next, but the labor itself made no progress. At this point, Bezunesh herself was prepared to agree to a C-section, but the doctors shared her husband’s opinion: it would be too big an operation with regard to her healing. Instead, they cut her vagina open.
When that didn’t help, the doctor put his hand inside Bezunesh’s uterus at the last minute, managed to move the baby into a better position and pulled it out with a pair of forceps.
– At that point, I blacked out.
The tradition persists
The next morning, Bezunesh was sent home with her baby boy. The doctor had stitched what he had cut, but could do nothing more for Bezunesh.
– The doctor was terribly mad. “Your parents ought to be ashamed for what they have let be done to you!” he said to me as I left the hospital.
It was the first time anyone had said anything like that to Bezunesh.
Bezunesh was again at home almost unable to move, and at the same time she tried to pull through the spring’s final exams. Luckily, her younger sister came to help. Her husband had also had a good scare when he realized both his wife and son could have died in labor.
Something had changed in Bezunesh, too.
– I have decided with my husband that none of our children will be circumcised.
Bezunesh also wants to speak openly about the matter, in order to save as many girls as possible from her faith.
– When I visited my husband’s new church in Irgalem with the baby, everyone came to adore the boy. It was a good opportunity to tell them how close we both came to dying, and what else the circumcision has done to me. Also my husband has talked about it.
Bezunesh’s openness about the matter has confused her listeners, and she is well aware of the mission that lies ahead of her.
– My brother let his eight-year-old daughter be circumcised just this summer! I am so angry I can’t even greet my relatives. After giving birth, I spoke with my mother about what the circumcision has done to me – and then she just watches the exact same thing being done to her grandchild.
Separated from her family
Bezunesh is angry, but her appearance is remarkably calm. Even after her presentation for her theology course, she smiles as she listens to her male colleagues’ critique, and then replies with strong but calm arguments. She is the second woman in her class among all the men, and, according to an American professor, is top of her class.
It has taken tremendous efforts, including financially, to keep Bezunesh among the men until this day. Local parishes grant scholarships to students without means, but it is difficult to be granted one as a woman, as most jobs go to men anyway.
Bezunesh admits that it feels unfair to struggle day after day in an environment where men and women are treated so differently.
– But I try not to think of it too much. All I’m doing here is studying.
Since August, Bezunesh has lived apart from her husband and eight-month-old son, and hasn’t seen them for months. Her husband has already graduated as a priest and got a job at Irgalem, a day-long car ride away. He took their son with him, as Bezunesh cannot take care of a baby at the seminary. He is taken care of by Bezunesh’s little sister.
This is why Bezunesh is currently studying 15 hours a day and gets a meager night’s sleep on one of the lower bunks at the dormitory.
– I miss my family terribly much, but that is also something I better not think about too much right now. The sooner I graduate, the sooner I get to be with them.
Meanwhile, Bezunesh has time to heal. She still hasn’t quite recovered from her labor. Yet, despite all she has been through, Bezunesh hopes to have more children. After all, it is why she got married in the first place.
Three ways of mutilation
There are three discernible types of female circumcision:
1. The tip of the clitoris is removed, or the clitoris is removed partly or completely.
2. The clitoris is removed, and the inner labia is cut partly or completely.
3. The external genitalia is removed partly or completely. The mutilated labia are stitched together in such a manner that only a small hole is left for urine and menstrual blood.
About 15 percent of circumcisions performed around the world are of the third type.
A persistent tradition
– There are currently 100–140 million circumcised women and girls around the world. Two million girls are still circumcised every year.
– Girls are circumcised in several African countries, as well as in some areas in the Middle East and Southern Asia.
– The circumcision is commonly performed on girls aged four to 12.
– In addition to pain and hemorrhage, circumcision may lead to infections, problems urinating, bone fractures due to being held down, fistulas, damage to neighboring tissue, blood poisoning, incontinence, infertility, complications in labor, and even death.
– In Ethiopia, 81 percent of women aged 35–39 have been circumcised; but only 62 percent of 15–19-year-olds. (The most recent figures date three years back.)
– Female circumcision has declined during the last decade almost everywhere in Ethiopia, but in it has even increased in some areas.
– Anti-circumcision work is performed by civic organizations, religious communities, and authorities. In Finland, the work is performed by the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission. “A video of an actual circumcision being performed has proven to be especially effective. Men in particular did not necessarily have an idea of how brutal a procedure a circumcision really is,” says Regina Hantikainen, who performs women’s work in Ethiopia.
Sources: WHO, the Finnish League for Human Rights, PRB and Save the Children Norway.
Reversal surgery is performed in Finland
Several thousand women living in Finland have undergone the broadest, third-degree circumcision. Treating labors of circumcised immigrant women is common, especially in hospitals of large cities.
Dr. Johanna Tapper, who works at the Maternity Hospital in Helsinki, says that circumcision is not in itself a reason to perform a C-section, but also that most circumcised women have vaginal births. “The tissue stitched together is opened up at the expulsion stage, so that the child is able to be born and in order to avoid tearing in the tissue. The edges of the wound can be stitched, but the mother is by no means closed up completely,” Tapper says.
In Finland, reversal surgery is also performed on women who have not given birth. Such surgeries are part of special health care and are performed in gynecological disease units. “Removed tissue cannot be restored, but in the reversal surgery, the scar tissue in front of the vaginal opening is opened, which can ease problems with intercourse as well as urinating and menstrual problems,” Tapper says.
You can seek treatment through your own health center.