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Tough choices for Eritrea's Three Sisters

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Life on the Edge: Eritrea's Three Sisters

By Steve Bradshaw
Executive Producer, Life on the Edge

Twenty-two-year-old Leyla is about to celebrate her daughter Menal's first birthday. She will have to decide whether the celebrations should also include Menal's circumcision.

Although her family are taking it calmly, Leyla's actually wondering whether to call it off.

Leyla has only had two children. But Amina, who is 35, has had six. Now she is pregnant again and has to decide whether to have her seventh at home.

The alternative, as Amina sees it, is to take a big risk and trust a new local hospital.

Howa has an easier decision to make - but not as simple as you might think.

Eritrean baby, Menal
Menal's mother must decide if she will have her daughter circumcised
She is being offered a hectare of land in a government scheme supported by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The land would help Howa feed her four children, who she is bringing up on her own.

The trouble is that local custom dictates women should not plough the land and, without ploughing, it is hard to see how she would have any crops.

Leyla, Amina and Howa live in Eritrea's Gash Barka - a vast drought-prone region and a rarely filmed corner of the Horn of Africa.

Our three sisters do not know each other, but they do have a friend in common - Belainesh Seyoum, of the National Union of Eritrean Women.

Belainesh fought against Ethiopia in Eritrea's war for independence, enlisting after her best friend was killed.

Belainesh and our three sisters are living in a country where women helped win the war and one in three soldiers were female.

Tricky choices

Now, helped by changes in the constitution, they can make a stand for their own rights. But it is not that easy - they will have to take on neighbours, family, whole centuries of tradition.

And it is not always clear to Leyla, Amina or Howa how to unravel this dilemma.

As Leyla says: "If a girl is circumcised...she can marry, she can get a husband".

Interior of home in Eritrea
Women are torn between desire for change and the pressure of tradition
But at a Women's Union workshop, attended by her father, Leyla hears that female circumcision has been outlawed, and is not dictated by religious texts.

At a family lunch afterwards there is discussion on the matter, but that is all.

"It was important that my father and relatives were there," Leyla says.

"If they were to continue to attend such meetings, I'm sure their attitudes would be changed. As for me, I can't say. I can't make up my mind in just three hours."

Meanwhile, Amina is still considering where to have her baby.

"I gave birth to all my children in this bed. All six were born here. I've never gone to a hospital and I've never had any problems," she says.

Home births are dangerous and infant mortality rates are high here. With the help of medically trained midwives, the government has been trying to lure people to hospitals.

But, prompted by Belainesh, Amina reveals another reason for preferring a home birth.

She would be able to enlist the local traditional birth attendants.

And they could be trusted to reconstitute the restrictive "stitching" performed during some kinds of circumcision here.

But she says: "If I go to hospital, they will unstitch me. But after the birth they refuse to do the re-stitching".

Berhana Haite, from Eritrea's Ministry of Health, warns strongly against practices like re-stitching.

"Infection can happen... bleeding can happen. It's really a lifelong suffering," she says.

Local doctors echo this warning but Amina remains unconvinced.

A new front-line

As for Howa, she does have the chance to work her land. The government scheme includes a loan to help her pay a man to plough it for her.

But she is aware that this goes against the norm.

"People here believe a woman should not go out and leave small children behind," she explains.

"I have to support my family, which is why I go to the market every Tuesday to sell tea - even so, my neighbours gossip."


Traditional attitudes do not change within a day or a month or a year. It needs a lot of time to change in order to transform women to a better life

Belainesh Seyoum
National Union of Eritrean Women

As Leyla, Amina and Howa have found, tradition and peer pressure are tough constraints.

But they are strong-minded young women and there is a sense history on their side.

During the war, women from traditional backgrounds were among those who fought on the front-line.

"There was no distinction between men and women," says Belainesh.

"So we used to work together in the kitchen and we used to fight the enemy together."

But the problem now is that there is no enemy, only tough dilemmas and tricky choices.

How does Belainesh think our three sisters will decide?

"Leyla, I believe she will not circumcise her daughter. And Amina... maybe 65% she will deliver in the health centre. Howa - she has cultural pressure - but she will break away because she has to come out of poverty to send her children to school."

"Traditional attitudes do not change within a day or a month or a year," she says. "It needs a lot of time to change in order to transform women to a better life."

Life on the Edge is broadcast on BBC World News on Tuesdays at 1930 GMT. The films were made for the BBC by TVE.


Your comments

This is a very difficult decision for the sisters. A tradition instilled for many years is hard to let go. But then again it is never too late for the sisters to give it a chance. Being from the United States this is unimaginable let alone accepted. We must respect them for being strong in a tradition we can never imagine.
Sonia Quevedo, Bakersfield, California

I have had a taste of the cultural pressures that are still present among the Eritrean community abroad. Howa mentioned the gossip she has to deal with which is very strong and holds many people back in Eritrean communities everywhere. These women will need a lot of courage and strength to do what is right. For any change to happen in Eritrea, the first step required is a change in mindset.
Eritrean-Canadian, London, Canada

I think it is high time health ministries in all African countries (especially the ones which practise female circumcision) raise awareness about female circumcision and why it should be stopped. As an African woman, I know women back home face much tougher life choices and it is high time the world hears about it.
Flora Nduku, Trondheim, Norway

I really admire the strength of these women, who have faced circumstances that I could never imagine. I am also pleased to see that the Eritrean government is taking a formals stand against the mutilation and oppression of these women. Although it will take a long time for these traditions to be widely rejected, it is still an encouraging step toward progress.
Bernadette, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

Though the sisters have to make tough decisions, I believe the information they have been equipped with will help them reach the best decision. This will help other women confronted with similar situations to make up their minds too.
Victor Idighisai, Lagos, Nigeria

As a citizen of an under-privileged and conservative country, I can understand these three sisters' problems quite well. But I believe that women can secure their rights if they can get out of their fear, inertia and superstitions. Governments and societies of all countries should provide all possible support and take all necessary steps to help women build their lives. Most importantly, men should think of women as their partners, not as their subordinates.
Tohfa Nazim, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It is indeed unfortunate that people, in particular, women and children have to go through such horrible man-made difficulties. As an Eritrean, I can testify that the difficulties are not only caused by unhealthy traditions, but also by irresponsible governments and so-called western donors who pay lip service to the suffering of the poor in the South. If there were enough schools and health centre with good governance and responsible media, all the unwanted traditions in Eritrea would have vanished by now.
Bohashem, London, UK

My heart aches for these women and for their children. Reading these stories one cannot believe we are living in the 21st Century. There is so much wrong with so many lives in this world but so much more wrong in the lives of women. As a woman of 70 I have lived through so much change in my own western society. There is a total feeling of helplessness as to how life can be made better for them. I hope their strengths can help them make the right decisions.
Anne Fuller, Auckland, New Zealand

Leyla is very brave going against tradition in this way. Circumcision is not natural nor God inspired. If we were designed to be without certain parts of the body they would never have been there in the first place.
Shirley Stickland, Alicante, Spain

These women face much tougher life choices than we do where their basic survival almost depends on it. Our toughest choices are which gas company to go with for the best deal or which supermarket is cheapest. These people constantly live hand to mouth. I don't envy their choices at all.
SG, Leeds, UK


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