Gebre was born in 1953 in the remote Zata village of Ethiopia’s Kembatta district, about 255 miles southwest of the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. When she was 6, instead of fetching water like most girls were expected to do, Gebre would leave her house before 6 a.m., hide her water bucket in the bushes and run off to school. By the time her father caught on, Gebre had already learned to read.
But like nearly every Ethiopian girl at the time, Gebre underwent genital mutilation. During one of several interviews she gave about her experience, Gebre said she had just reached puberty when a man grabbed and blindfolded her while two women sat on each side of her and held her legs as they performed the barbaric procedure. “I bled and bled and bled, and the blood wouldn’t stop,” she recalled. When she had healed two months later, she was viewed as being ready for marriage.
Ms. Gebre, who had already defied expectations for Ethiopian girls in her village by secretly learning to read, went on to devote her life to ending female genital mutilation, as well as bridal abduction, domestic violence and other scourges that combined, she said, to make Ethiopian women “live in fear every day of their lives.” She led change not with demonstrations or confrontation, but through what she described as community conversations facilitated by KMG Ethiopia also known as Kembatta Women Standing Together (a nonprofit organization she co-founded in 1997 with her sister).
“I began KMG Ethiopia thinking that if I could save a single girl from a dreadful life, from practices that numb, crush the spirit and rob women of their dignity, I would have done my life’s mission,” Gebre said in a fundraiser letter she wrote in 2015. Gebre lived to see her work achieve much more. The rate of female genital mutilation in areas where her organization worked decreased from nearly 100% in 1999 to less than 3% by 2008, according to her organization’s website. Her success led UNICEF to suggest that her approach be replicated across Africa.
It was Gebre’s charisma and humble nature that helped build the framework of her organization. But it was her approach that ultimately made it successful. Gebre said that simply demanding people to live a certain lifestyle wouldn’t end discrimination against women. Instead, her philosophy was rooted in the belief that spearheading conversations with communities in safe spaces that nurtured dialogue and debate was the best path forward.
“To make people understand the harm that comes to their children, you can’t come in and tell them, ‘You are doing bad and must stop,’” Gebre said in the 2013 interview. “It has to come from inside the community. It has to be discussed over and over again, in the African tradition. That’s how change comes.”
Ms. Gebre described her mother as intelligent and wise but told the Independent she and other women were “regarded as no better than the cows they milked.” “All her life she was abused and beaten — for nothing,” Ms. Gebre said. “She had her back stooped, her legs broken, her jaw broken, even though she did everything right."
According to Gebre’s family and friends, Gebre died November 2nd in Los Angeles shortly after arriving from Ethiopia. When she passed away, Gebre was 66. The cause of death is unclear; however, in recent years, Gebre periodically came to Los Angeles to receive medical treatment after a car accident in the late 1980s left her with nerve damage.