Rethinking culture: changing practices and proverbs in Oromiya

By Oxfam

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An adage in Ethiopia's Oromiya region warns people to be careful around an uncircumcised woman because "she will break everything."

But proverbs can evolve over time and no longer be accepted as true. As communities become more educated, they may update their perspective. In one village in Oromiya, future proverbs may reflect the wisdom of educating women and the changes in communities when this occurs.

Like many places, Southwest Shewa in Oromiya has a history of practices that harm women. Traditional culture here often oppresses women, whether involving female circumcision (genital mutilation), early marriage, abduction, battery, or the inheritance of a wife upon the death of her husband.

What is called "culture" often reflects matters of convenience. The abduction of women for marriage has increased as the economy has declined, since husbands no longer want to pay for weddings and dowries. Inheriting a wife from a dead relative is another way of keeping land in the family. An economy of subjugation serves to control women who do most of the work in a household. And female circumcision is thought to dampen a woman's sexual desires, making her calmer, less willful and uncontrollable, less likely to "break everything." Some of these practices, especially female circumcision, are perpetuated by women themselves, concerned that their daughters will be unmarriageable unless they follow established tradition.

Yet one village in Southwest Shewa is starting to change such practices. Oxfam America, through a partner organization, the Oromo Self-Reliance Association (OSRA), began the reeducation process in Adaa Berga district eight months ago. Women and men in the communities are learning about women’s rights and initiating their own changes to harmful practices. This training is coupled with a livelihoods project, the establishment of a cereal bank run by women. The cereal bank, where grain is stored to be sold when prices are high, empowers women by providing them with some economic security and supplementary income. Women must take the civic education course as a condition of joining the women's cooperative. That powerful combination makes both the education and the cooperative more effective.

The Oxfam-supported women-run cooperative has named itself Qubse, which means "hope for the future." The women on the committee have all attended OSRA trainings, enabling them to become advocates in their own communities. But "hope for the future" is not limited to economic growth through the cereal bank. It means realizing the dream of a better life for each woman and her neighbor, a life of rights and respect for themselves and future generations.

The education has been an eye-opening experience for many people in the community. For some, the lessons have come late in life, but the whole community stands to benefit—especially the girls.

Mulu Gofta, a 45-year-old mother of four, is clear about what she hopes for the future. "One thing the good life means to me is educating your children. You support your daughters in education. First they will help me, then they will help the community, and in a few years they will help our people."

It is a sentiment that is echoed by others, most notably by 46-year-old Abebu Kebebe. For nearly a decade, Abebu has struggled as head of her household, a single mother widowed and left with nine children. Like many others in the community, she speaks of educating her daughter, saying, "That is the good life. That is the good hope for me. Also, this will be helping my neighbors and being an example."

Several years ago, Abebu forced one daughter into marriage at age 11. Her daughter left school, where she was in 4th grade. Now, after attending the OSRA training funded by Oxfam, Abebu has changed her outlook on early marriage and other traditional practices.

She says: "Now that I've had training on harmful practices—early marriage, female circumcision, abduction—I really regret doing what I did to my children. I married [them] off before I learned. Had I the chance again, I would not do it." Within months, Abebu has changed her opinions on the treatment of women, becoming an advocate for change. "I don't only stop at regretting what I have done," she says. "I share what I have learned with my neighbors, with relatives. I'm doing my best."

Abebu’s voice rings out proudly. She has met more than her share of hardships and is not afraid of change that will ease life for future generations of women. Her face framed in a black headscarf, she sits regally among the women, respected and liked by the community. Her shoes are unlaced and made of plastic, her skin is prematurely aged by the sun, and a life of labor stretches behind her. Ahead of her is a future that she can watch taking shape in other women in her own village. She is fearless, sharing her knowledge and teaching from her own experience—her own regrets.

It is through such discussion and sharing of information that what once was an oddity can become accepted. Twenty-five-year-old Meseret Nugussie, herself circumcised, speaks passionately about what she has learned and how she will apply her knowledge: "I know the problems now of circumcision. I have two girls and I will make sure it does not happen to them."

For Meseret's daughters, it is not too late. Major change in this village happens one daughter at a time.

Abebu now views her 8-year-old daughter Tiya differently than her previous children. With Tiya there is another chance, a hope for the future—Qubse. Abebu is now a different woman than a year ago, as she vows, "I will educate her until my last breath leaves." Perhaps one day that will be the village’s new proverb.