Few years ago, in rural Shinyanga in Tanzania, 12-year-old Anangisiye Mwakiponda had the courage to say no to Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM); a harmful practice that causes serious physical and psychological harm, and which also often leads to girls stopping school and entering early or forced marriage. Anangisiye, however, was lucky.
According to the UN, globally, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM.
FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women. Since 1998, the Tanzanian government has criminalized FGM, yet 10 per cent of women aged between 15-49 still undergo FGM, with the prevalence in certain Regions in the centre and north of the country ranging between 30 per cent to as high as 60 per cent.
Anangisiye’s story is captured by 23-year-old author Getrude Mligo in her book ‘Dear Girl Child’. It took Getrude a year to understand Anangisiye before penning down her story of courage. Before Anangisiye became Getrude’s protagonist in her book, she only knew Anangisiye as her sister’s friend. But Getrude was intrigued by her life story till one day she decided to meet her in person. “When I met Anangisiye and learnt what she has gone through, I knew there and then that her story needs to be heard by many girls, not just in Tanzania but all those who want to shun away from this practice [FGM],” Getrude tells.
Anangisiye lived in a community where FGM is seen as a ‘rite of passage’, and where girls who are ‘un-cut’ are often seen as being ‘dirty’ and consequently unable to marry – saying no can mean losing your community, your family and friends. It can be alienating and dangerous.
Her family had destined her for what all her seven sisters already went through – cutting and being married off at the age 12.
Anangisiye was also trained before she became a teen on how to take care of the house – that included washing, cleaning, sweeping and cooking. She grew up watching her mother being beaten by her father every day, but was never allowed to question why.
Anangisiye decided for herself that she didn’t want to be in the same situation like her sisters, so she ran away to escape the brutality and chased her dreams of becoming an engineer.
Take yourself back to being between 11 and 16 years old – could you face this impossible choice alone, potentially with no support from your parents, teachers or community?
Tanzania Demograhic Health Survey (TDHS) report of 2016 shows that between the 2004-05 and 2015-16 TDHS-MIS, the proportion of circumcised women age 15-24 who were circumcised at age 13 or older increased from 25 per cent to 36 per cent, suggesting that one in 10 women in Tanzania have been circumcised.
The most common type of circumcision involved cutting and removal of flesh, with 81 per cent of circumcised women reporting this type of circumcision. Seven per cent of circumcised women reported that their genital area had been sewn closed (infibulated). Infibulation is the type of FGM practise that is of greatest concern because of the possible harm to health. The majority of circumcised women (86 per cent) reported that a traditional practitioner had performed the circumcision.
Why the book?
Despite Getrude being inspired by Anangisiye’s story, there was more to it. The author says during her research she found out that most people or families that practice FGM illegally aren’t well educated since they have different views about a girl child over decades and to change that she wants people to see the whole weight from the roots.
Culture beliefs and poverty are among contributing factors that force families to practise FGM and exchange their daughters with cow, money while their daughters are school-going girls.
Despite the government has achieved to increase the enrolment number of girls and boys in schools to ensure both get equal education opportunity, unfortunately, early marriage, child abuse and rape also hinder a girl child to prosper and achieve what she wants in life.
Written is never forgotten, Getrude believes. “In rural areas not everyone has access to smartphones, so the best way to equip girls with information on girls’ rights is through a book,” she says.
The target readers are young girls. “I want to remind them of how powerful they can be and how their brave decisions can change society narratives. I also want them to know that being brave doesn’t mean they are crazy it means to fight for their rights and to enable achieve their goals just like Anangisiye did,” the young author says.
A human rights activist, Ms Rhobi Samuelly and a victim of FGM, tells Woman magazine that FGM and early marriages are among many obstacles that hinder a girl child to achieve her dreams because the two depend on each other.
“Once a girl is cut what follows is marriage and it’s unfortunate that some families still believe in such practices,” she says.
Since Covid-19 was first reported in the country, more than 150 girls in Serengeti and Mara have been cut so far because of school’s ordered to be shutdown to contain the pandemic.
Ms Samuelly also the director of ‘Hope for Girls and Women Tanzania’, an NGO fighting for girls’ rights, says by collaborating with gender desks, municipal councils, social welfare and police officers, a total number of 100 girls were saved from being cut. She adds that currently the police in Serengeti have arrested a mutilator who cut 192 girls.
By using road shows, face to face discussions with girls and FGM awareness provided in schools, some girls are now able to say no to FGM and early marriage and understand their rights.
Togolani Mavura, a parent, agrees that FGM and early marriage are issues that every parents should fight against to help girls attain their dreams.
“As a father I don’t want such bizarre things being practised in Tanzania. Both girls and boys should be considered as equal and should be given equal opportunity in terms of education, division of labour and in the upbringing,” the father of a teenager tells.