Effectiveness of intervention measures to address female genital mutilation in Ethiopia: A discussion

Author: Henok Ashagrey
Legal Researcher at the Secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

Despite certain signs of progress, interventions to address harmful practices in the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (Ethiopia) are still ineffective. To be effective, these interventions require more inclusivity, stronger cooperation between levels of government, and a focus on changing societal values.

Harmful practices are a principal factor in the violations of women’s rights in Ethiopia. For example, in the North Shewa rural region in the North of Ethiopia, where I come from, harmful practices against women and girls, particularly female genital mutilation (FGM), are accepted as valid cultural practice. The practitioners of FGM justify their acts on religious and cultural grounds.

As part of its measures to address the practice, the Ethiopian government has taken legislative actions. Even though the 1995 Constitution of Ethiopia does not directly address FGM, it contains many provisions relevant to FGM:  Article 16 extend protections to all citizens against ‘bodily harm’; Article 18(1) provides that ‘everyone has the right to protection against cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’; Article 25 guarantees the ‘right to equality’; Article 35 addresses the ‘rights of women’, more specifically article 35(4) asserts ‘the state shall enforce the right of women to eliminate the influences of harmful customs,’ and prohibits laws, customs and practices that oppress or cause bodily or mental harm to women; and article 36 guarantees the rights of children and stipulates that every action relating to a child or children has to take into account their best interests as a primary consideration. In line with these constitutional stipulations, articles 565 and 566 of the 2004 Criminal Code of Ethiopia (the CC) criminalize the performance and procurement of FGM without however providing a precise definition of it, and set out punishments for the practice. While article 565 of CC stipulates that FGM on a woman of any age is sanction by incarceration for not less than three months or a fine of not less than 500 Birr (about 18 US$), article 566 (1) proclaims that infibulating the genitalia of a woman, which is the most severe type of FGM, is punishable by incarceration of three to five years. Article 566(2) further aggravates the sanction where infibulating the genitalia of a woman causes injury to body or health; results an imprisonment for a period of five to ten years.  Again, articles 569 and 570 of the CC address the procurement of, and aiding, FGM by declaring it a crime for any person, including parents, to participate or incite someone to contravene the provisions proscribing FGM; backed by imprisonment for a period not exceeding three months or a fine not exceeding 500 Birr. They also criminalise any movement that promotes FGM; imposes imprisonment for a period of not less than three months or a fine of not less than 500 Birr, or both.

However, the CC has some gaps in dealing with FGM effectively and efficiently. Firstly, it does not punish a failure to report FGM unless, as per the cumulative reading of articles 443, 568 and 514 of the CC, the victim has contracted a disease which can cause grave injury or death. Secondly, the CC does not safeguard uncut women and girls from disparaging language or segregation from community; the laws of Kenya and Uganda for instance declare such acts as offences. Thirdly, FGM performed in a medical setting is not precisely addressed in the CC though, given the inclusive nature of articles 561–570, one can argue that the provisions in the CC should be interpreted to cover all medical practitioners who do FGM. Fourthly, as the fines set out in the CC are not updated to take into account unprecedented inflation since 2004, their punitive and deterrence role is very meager.

From a policy angle, Ethiopia’s national Ministry of Women, Children and Youth’s Affairs as well as regional equivalents and multi-stakeholder committees composed of social affairs, education, and justice departments were also established to tackle harmful practices. These bodies are, however, largely dysfunctional as a result of budgetary and accountability issues.

Complementing executive and legislative action, the Ethiopian courts have become more aggressive in investigating and rendering decisions regarding violence against women. Unfortunately, as Thomson Reuters Foundation noted in 2018, implementation of the law on FGM appears weak and few cases reach court. For instance, in 2016, only one conviction was recorded. Consequently, FGM continues unchecked in the country proving the ineffectiveness of the various measures.

In my opinion, the following three factors are the principal reasons for this failure.

First, the policy-making processes is not participatory. The federal government utilizes a top-down approach to policy-making, without consulting local communities and their leaders. Also, apart from certain attempts at the national level, the role of religious institutions to effectively deal with FGM is not emphasized enough at the grassroots.

Second, the restrictions placed by the recently repealed Charities and Societies Proclamation on foreign NGOs and locals that generate more than 10% of the funding from foreign sources to keep them from engaging in human rights activities hampered the efforts. Only Ethiopian Charities and Societies, which are facing myriad challenges with regard to financial sustainability, that in turn reduce their ability to gather data and share knowledge in the work to end FGM, could engage in human rights activities, including work to promote gender equality. However, this restriction has been lifted following the introduction of the new Charities and Societies proclamation, which was adopted by the House of Peoples Representatives on February 5, 2019, that guarantees the right of all organizations, including foreign and foreign funded NGOs, to engage in any lawful activity, including advocacy and human rights work.

Third, the measures are often aimed at forceful eradication of FGM without an accompanying social education program to ensure a societal change and shift in values.

Accordingly, to ensure effectiveness of the measures against FGM, the government should focus on creating awareness and social mobilization through local officials. The projects should be participatory and linked to local initiatives, and comprise laymen and boys as well as traditional and spiritual leaders. Moreover, the effort has to be included the wider social attitudes towards gender with emphasis on gender roles and inequality. Last but not list, the CC should be revised to: provide a vivid definition of FGM, which addresses all types of FGM; specifically addresses medicalised FGM; explicitly sanction and provides the punishment for failure to report FGM; protect uncut women and girls from disparaging language and discrimination; and increase the fines provided under the CC to cope up with the unprecedented inflation since 2004.


United States Department of State • Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: Executive summary of Ethiopia 2016 human right report, 2016 avalable at https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/265466.pdf

Thomson Reuters Foundation Ethiopia: the law and FGM,  2018 available at https://www.google.de/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwiijYjhp6PhAhXRlIsKHRPYACoQFjAAegQIABAC&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.28toomany.org%2Fstatic%2Fmedia%2Fuploads%2FLaw%2520Reports%2Fethiopia_law_report_(july_2018).pdf&usg=AOvVaw34tQqQ5XzuqsyFpvsAd0yT

About the Author:
Henok Ashagrey  is a Legal Researcher at the Secretariat of the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and a Law Lecturer at Dilla University. He holds an LLM in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa from the University of Pretoria.

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