Girls who fled their homes to escape FGM narrate their tales

Rhobi’s dream is to become a lawyer and an activist against FGM in the future. PHOTO | HELLEN NACHILONGO

Serengeti. When schools closed for three months to limit the transmission of Covid-19 last year, parents in areas where female genital mutilation (FGM) is most prevalent had plans for their daughters. This was the right time for them to undergo the rite of passage.

2020 was a good year to perform the rite because the number “2020” is divisible by two. It is believed that in such years, it’s unlikely for girls to over-bleed from the cut.

As parents in Serengeti District’s villages prepared their daughters for the initiation ceremony, a few girls who did not want to undergo genital mutilation contemplated ways to escape the unlawful act. They had to run away from home to avoid undergoing the cut.

Serengeti District ’s community development officer Wambura Sunday says in 2017, about 2,000 girls escaped FGM. These are out of the 14,000 girls who had been scheduled for the following year’s cutting season. Although he could not provide figures, Wambura said a good number of girls routinely undergo genital mutilation in the district.

Mara District Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) Longinus Tibishubwamu says last year, during the Covid-19 school closures, the police tried to rescue more than 200 girls from undergoing FGM. But, protecting all of them wasn’t easy - given that most were at their homes.

Escaping the cut

Fourteen-year old Rhobi (not her real name) from Gwarani Village in Serengeti District is among girls who escaped the cut last year. The only girl in a family of six children, Rhobi is now living in a shelter for girls who escaped FGM and child marriage: Hope for Girls Centre.

Rhobi says her father had been excited at the prospect of his only daughter becoming a complete woman after undergoing FGM. He had made all the requisite arrangements, and was eagerly waiting for the day when she would enter womanhood and eventually get married.

In the Kurya tribe, a girl who has undergone FGM is believed to bring respect to the family. Rhobi - who was in Class Six at the time - tried to explain to her parents the effects of FGM but all she said fell on deaf ears. Her parents told her it would be a shame for the family if she did not undergo the rite.

Rhobi told her parents she did not want to get the cut or get married; she wanted to complete her education and attain her dream of becoming a lawyer.

She ran away from home at dawn on the day she was to be cut just after her father left the house to go buy a cow for the ceremony.

She walked the whole day and slept up a tree when darkness fell. She continued with her journey the following morning and reached a village after many hours of walking.

Since she had phone numbers for the police and Hope for Girls Centre, Rhobi asked for a phone to call the police who rescued her. Girls at her school had been given the numbers during a sensitisation campaign.

“Girls should not let parents ruin their dreams for the future. They should say NO to FGM so as to attain their dreams. I refused to be mutilated. I’m now staying at Hope for Girls Centre and I’m happy and safe here,” says Rhobi, who is currently doing a tailoring course.

Located in Mara Region, Hope for Girls Centre provides shelter and support to girls fleeing FGM and child marriage.

“My ambition is to become a lawyer and defend young girls and women who are victims of violence. When I finish my studies, I want to tell the world to continue fighting against harmful practices that deny girls their rights,” says Rhobi.

Like Rhobi, Elina (also not her real name), managed to escape FGM after her father could not raise enough money to have his two daughters cut. A deficit of Sh20,000 gave Elina the opportunity to run away while her father was still trying to raise the Sh60,000 required for the cut.

“This gave me a chance to run to the nearest church. I was then directed to go to Hope for Girls Centre where I was warmly welcomed,” the 14-year old told this reporter during a field study sponsored by the African Women Development and Communication Newtork (Femnet).

Femnet is an organisation that promotes women’s development in Africa, and helps non-government organisations to share information and approaches on women’s development, equality and other human rights.

Elina is happy that, through collaborative efforts, she has found a new home. When she grows up, she plans to fight against FGM and child marriages.

The government criminalised FGM in 1998 and according to a Female Genital Mutilation fact sheet by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Tanzania, FGM prevalence has since gone down from 18 to 10 percent.

The fact sheet shows that one-in-ten women in Tanzania aged 15-49 has undergone FGM. Of these, 35 percent underwent FGM before the age of one year. The highest prevalences are in Manyara, Dodoma and Arusha regions, at 58, 47 and 41 percent respectively.

FGM prevalence is twice as high in rural (13 percent) than in urban areas (5 percent), according to the UNFPA fact sheet.

Police Officer Tibishubwamu says that, despite sensitising the community on the adverse effects of FGM, the practice is still ongoing in the region. He says government and other organisations have been visiting schools to educate pupils and inform girls to report the matter to the police whenever they suspect their parents are planning to have them undergo the cut.

“We also give them mobile phone numbers to call in case they need help. So far, we have imprisoned two women who were found guilty of causing harm to girls during FGM - and other cases are in court,” the police officer says.

The police force is collaborating with government and NGOs to ensure the culprits are put behind bars.

Josephine Tesha, a psychologist, says girls and women who have undergone FGM may be affected by a chronic pain syndrome, which interferes with daily life, and can lead to depression and anxiety.

Dr Nelly Bosire, a gynaecologist, says when girls are cut, they face the immediate risk of blood loss, shock, serious injury, a range of infections - and even death, when loss of blood or infections are especially severe.

Dr Bosire says FGM remains a grievous bodily injury with a host of serious short- and long-term health threats. The doctor further says that many women undergo FGM in circumstances where their opinion does not matter. They are usually too young to know the impact of the procedure.