Dar es Salaam. On February 6, Tanzania joined the rest of the world to commemorate the International Day of Zero Tolerance for female genital mutilation (FGM). This is a real issue in Tanzania where, according to the country’s Demographic and Health Survey (2015/16), an estimated 7.9 million women and girls have undergone FGM across the country.
In 2015/16, a total 10 per cent women age 15- 49, were circumcised, a decline from 18 per cent in 1996.
Areas such as Mara Region have high prevalence rates with some studies pointing to the need to strengthen interventions among some tribes including the Kurya.
Global statistics also show that at least 200 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation.
Sadly, girls who undergo FGM face short-term complications like severe pain, shock, excessive bleeding, infections, and difficulty in passing urine, as well as long-term consequences for their sexual and reproductive health and mental health. They are also more likely to drop out of school and face child marriage.
The government of Tanzania is working with partners to end this harmful practice that has seen some girls fleeing from their homes in the Serengeti district of the Mara region.
In 2018 alone, a total 1,471 girls aged between 9 and 19 fled their homes in protest of this cultural practice.
One initiative that has brought to light risks associated with FGM is the Female Genital Mutilation Elimination project (Tokomeza Ukeketaji) supported through the Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women and managed by UN Women.
Following massive campaigns, last year a total of 96 traditional elders and six cutters in Serengeti abandoned the practice.
Instead, the communities committed to Alternative Rites of Passage initiation that managed to protect 634 girls who were supposed to have suffered FGM in the district.
A significant number of elders and cutters in the Serengeti District no longer believe that the tradition of cutting girls has a role to play in a modern society.
The African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref) in 2018 implemented the Tokomeza Ukeketaji project. In an interview this week, Mr Godfrey Matumu, the project manager said as campaigns against the harmful practice intensify, awareness among women and girls is also growing.
The organisation is collaborating with the police and the Legal Human Rights Centre to mobilise the local communities in Mara Region to end FGM and instead, invest in the education of their girls.
“Many girls continue to run away from their families in the affected areas. We have a safe house in Serengeti where many of these girls are now staying,” Mr Matumu said.
In 2016, a total 932 girls fled their homes and sought protection in the safe house. Amref, working with some local authorities managed to reconcile 889 girls with their families, leaving 43 who are still staying in the safe house. Last year UN Women through Amref supported the girls in the safe house with 70 mattresses, sports items, food, sanitary pads and learning materials to support their education.
Speaking during an Alternative Passage of Rites ceremony for the Ngoreme clan held in Borenga village recently, the Serengeti District Administrative Secretary, Mr Cosmas Qamara said communities still practicing female genital mutilation should re-think how they are injuring children.
“We must liberate our children from this inhumane practice, which is also a crime in Tanzania. It is important that as a progressive society we stick to issues relevant to our development, including protecting the girls and ensuring that they get a good education,” Mr Qamara said.
However, mobilising traditional elders to see the benefits of protecting girls from the practice and to stop the punishing of community members who condemn it, is a practical strategy in Tanzania.
The traditional elders are key decision makers in the ceremonies, making it critical for interventions to focus attention on changing their mindsets and making them champions that challenge the practice.
“The abhaghaka-bhiikimila (traditional elders) are key decision makers in this practice. Some communities here in Serengeti believe that they communicate with the iresa (ancestral spirits), before they approve the cutting which is performed by old women called abhasaari (cutters),” Mr Matumu said
He explained the strategy to target traditional elders in all six clans of Inchugu, Inchage, Ngoreme, Tatoga, Walenchoka and Wakenye has resulted in key achievements causing some of the affected communities to stop the practice.
“As many brave girls resist the harmful practice, so have many people also come to realise that the myths associated with cutting, which they have believed for many years, also happen to be some of the reasons why their communities have remained under-developed. They now see how through this practice they have also promoted child marriages and deprived their girls of good education and a bright future,” Mr Matumu said.
Speaking at an Alternative Passage of Rites ceremony for 200 girls held at Isenye grounds, 72-year-old Amelia Nachilongo shed tears of joy as she celebrated change that came 60 years late for her.
“I am happy that this change has finally come in my lifetime. I believe we can be a better people without causing pain to our girls. Over the years, we have suffered a culture of silence and many girls have died and cases never reported,” she said.
She commended the UN Women-backed programme for raising awareness, which in turn has empowered girls to stand up for their rights and helped to reshape how the traditional practice is now being performed in her community.
She also marvelled at the courage demonstrated by the girls now living at the safe house.
“They have been given a new lease of life because they are going to school. That is what is important. We hope the momentum will continue so that all the girls in the affected areas across the country are liberated from this practice,” Nachilongo said.
UN Women Country Representative, Hodan Addou yesterday said there is need to continue rolling-out projects that will use many strategies to tackle the issue of female genital mutilation.
The entity for gender equality and empowerment of women and girls is implementing a new Strategic Plan, which adopted programmes aiming to support Tanzania to achieve gender equality, empower and strengthen the protection of women and girls.
“We are working with the Government and other partners through a number of interventions. This year we will focus on further strengthening capacities to protect women and girls from practices such as the female genital mutilation. This also includes our support towards continued engagements with the traditional elders,” Ms Addou said.
She further said female genital mutilation was rooted in gender inequalities and power imbalances between men and women.
“Therefore, it limits opportunities for girls and women to realize their rights and full potential in terms of health, education and income.”