Research Abroad in Ethiopia
Neha Reddy (‘16) conducted research in Ethiopa during the summer of 2013.
How did you know you wanted to do research?
I always wanted to do some kind of public health research because global health is the field I want to go into in the future, to analyze health systems around the world. I found out that Northwestern offers research grants for the summer, and it was kind of a last minute thing. I met a lawyer who told me about potential research that was happening in Ethiopia and that I needed to come up with a project, and that there would be some other girls going. That kind of all happened last minute. But in terms of research in general, just knowing that Northwestern has the opportunities to do research, I wanted to take advantage of that and get involved. It was one of the big reasons I chose to come to this university.
Can you talk a little bit about your project?
The title of my project was “Examining the Cultural Perceptions of Female Circumcision as a Human Rights Issue in Harare, Ethiopia.” For the people who don’t know, female circumcision, also called female genital mutilation or female cutting, entails the circumcision of a girl’s clitoris and/or parts of the labia. It happens in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and some places in the Middle East. There are different types, ranging from simple cutting of the clitoris to infibulation, where the labia is completely removed and the opening is sewed together. The practice is considered a gross violation of human rights in much of the Western world, but in the region of Harare, it is still prevalent. So, I wanted to understand the cultural perceptions and why the practice is still occurring, even though it is criminalized in Ethiopia. I did my research by talking to three groups of people.
I talked to medical practitioners and health care workers; NGO workers, ministry workers, and government officials; and lastly, I did community walks and talked to local village people. This allowed me to get a wide range of opinions on the issue. For example, a lot of the NGO workers think that the country is going in the right direction towards eradicating the practice. But then a lot of the local people I spoke with told me why the practice is so culturally important. Their explanations ranged from reasons like girls today are much more promiscuous and willing to go off and find their own partners, which is still not socially acceptable. Many also think it’s an important aspect of tradition and a link to their ancestors and they don’t want to abandon the practice. So there’s a wide range of perspectives.
How did your own perspectives change?
Well, I’ve always been a firm believer in universal human rights, but the intersection between human rights and culture can be difficult to address at times. But I was definitely one of those people that believed, and still do believe today, that female circumcision is a violation of women’s rights because the girl is often a minor and can’t really give consent, and also because of the health risks that are associated with the practice. But going to Ethiopia and talking to people really opened up my eyes to the fact that this is a really deeply rooted practice and it’s not going to be changed just by NGOs going in to the country and the UN passing declarations. The community itself has to want to change, and so the most effective strategies for eradicating the practice are when activists listen to the needs of the community, what they themselves want, and work with them to achieve those goals.
What was your most memorable experience in Ethiopia?
I would say that I had two especially memorable experiences when I was in Ethiopia. On one of my village walks, I had the chance to speak with an elderly woman, about 70 years old, who was a traditional practitioner of female circumcision. I was astounded to learn that she still circumcises girls today, as one of the only traditional practitioners left in the area, despite the fact that she could barely walk and was visibly shaky during out conversation. She explained that the role of traditional practitioner was passed down through her family, and she knew it was important because girls needed to be prepared to get husbands; almost like a rite of passage, and she needed to play her role in the community.
I realized that she wasn’t some malicious and cruel lady, but rather did truly care about the youth in her village. Secondly, I had an interview with a local police officer in another community who spoke to me of the importance of identifying families in the community who circumcised their daughters. Immediately afterwards, however, when I was speaking with another member of the police force, they told me that the officer had circumcised his daughter not long before. I realized that even those who are supposed to be enforcing the law cannot escape the cultural pressures, norms, and traditions of the community. It is too deeply engrained.
What are your plans for the future?
This was the best summer of my life because I realized that I want to go into the field of global health, traveling the world and observing the intersection of culture, rights, and health. I also hope to go back to Ethiopia this summer; I am planning to apply for the fellowship Projects for Peace to implement a reproductive health and economic-empowerment program with a group of rural girls, so we will see if that happens.
What advice do you have for other NU students after having this experience?
I’d say to definitely get involved in whatever way they choose; Northwestern has a lot of money to offer students for research, and I think that most students don’t realize that. There are a lot of hidden departments that offer grants during both the school year and summer; so if they at all have an interest, and put time into it, Northwestern can help them make it happen.