In Africa, even today, history is "his-story." It is the story of Africa as seen through the eyes of men. It may surprise some people, but I am not judgmental about this. The male-centric culture I grew up in was the culture we learned from our fathers and mothers, which, in turn, was passed down to them from generations before. But it does not need to be this way for our children, especially for our daughters.
I was born in rural Ethiopia in the 1950s, where I learned from an early age that my role in society and my opportunities in life were very circumscribed. As a child, I was expected to do household chores for my family, and then, in my late teens, to marry a man chosen for me by my parents. In my village, eligibility as a prospective wife was thought to be enhanced by lack of education and, cruelest of all, by female circumcision.
In defiance of my father, I snuck off to classes at a nearby Protestant Christian school and learned to read and write. In time, I won a scholarship to the only girls' boarding school in Addis Ababa, and then another that allowed me to go to university in Israel and America.
But despite my many good fortunes, I did not escape the knife. Like all of the young girls in my village, I was circumcised when I was about 12 years old. And even though I almost bled to death, I remember that I was actually proud at the time. In the eyes of my friends and family, I was a woman.
My sister, Fikrte, and I founded Kembatti Mentti Gezzimma-Tope (later re-named KMG Ethiopia) in November of 1997 to help African women become a part of the African people's story, and not just his-story, and to push back against the cultural norms that limited opportunities for women across the continent. Built upon the idea that people cannot "be developed," but can only develop themselves, KMG began the process of cultural transformation using an African social asset: we initiated community conversations. Gathering both women and men, young and old, religious leaders, and community elders together, we began by discussing the role of women in African society and their contributions to the survival of the family, before moving on to more taboo subjects like how HIV and AIDS, bride abductions and female circumcision affect women and girls, and impact society at large.
Female circumcision, otherwise known as female genital mutilation (FGM/C), most commonly involves the surgical removal of a woman's clitoris but can involve the removal of the inner and outer labia as well. It may seem like a barbaric custom to many Westerners, but it was, until fairly recently, a common practice in many African countries as well as in parts of Asia and the Middle East. In my village in Ethiopia, we were told that female circumcision was God's will, as spelled out in the Bible and the Koran. Some said that if a clitoris touched a baby's head during childbirth, the child would die.
As woman who came from the same community, but who was lucky to have an education and alternative information, I worked to inform people and dispel these myths. And through our efforts at KMG, I am proud to say that we have been able to reduce the rate of FGM from virtually 100% to just 3% in the areas we have worked in. But I believe we have done something more. Through our many conversations, in cities and towns and villages, I believe we have begun to redefine the role of women in Africa.
Much, of course, remains to be done. Throughout much of Africa, women are still the farmers, the feeders, the child-bearers and the primary educators -- the unpaid laborers who hold society together. Many are still, unfortunately, supporting actors in African his-story.
But through our work at KMG Ethiopia, we are attempting to write a new narrative, and I believe that the recognition we have received for our efforts will help us achieve this goal. This spring I was deeply honored to receive the prestigious King Baudouin African Development Prize, which I accepted on behalf of my KMG colleagues. The King Baudouin Foundation supports programs to advance justice, democracy, development and respect for diversity -- exactly the kinds of goals we seek to advance for Africa's women, and I am convinced that the publicity surrounding the prize will help us gather support for further efforts to empower women and girls.
In African villages today, it is not uncommon to see women taking leadership roles, and to hear them voicing their opinions on everything from national politics to the local economy. These women are assuming roles their mothers and grandmothers could never have imagined for themselves, and they are transforming Africa. I am proud that KMG Ethiopia, from its humble roots in village and community conversations, has been able to play a small role in their progress. At KMG, we are determined to help African women write an African story...one that narrates the achievements of both women and men, and celebrates the dignity of all.