FGM: Building agents of change in Tanzania

21 January 2015

The story of 16-year-old Diana (not her real name), a girl from Sirari district who, together with her sister, graduated from a month-long alternative rites of passage camp at the UNFPA-supported Masanga Centre, is all too typical of girls her age in Tanzania:

"When I was in boarding school, I heard that my uncles came to my aunt and wanted to take my 14-year-old sister for cutting. During the school holidays my main mission was to run away with my sister to a safe place, far away from the ngaribas (cutters) and family members who wanted to mutilate us," says Diana. "It was around 8.30 pm when my sister and I managed to escape. We went straight to the pastor's house where we knew we would be safe. The following day, when our family members found out about our escape they followed us to the pastor's house and threatened that once we returned home they would mutilate us."

As the pastor was aware of the Masanga Centre where one-month-long training on human rights, Kurya culture, reproductive health and extra tuition for school subjects was being offered to girls, he took Diana and her sister there. Once the training is complete it is followed by a graduation ceremony, and the process is referred to as an alternative rite of passage.

Diana is among more than 600 girls in the Mara region who were fortunate to escape female genital mutilation in 2014 and go through the alternative rites of passage, thus protecting them from being mutilated. It is offered under the Terminate Female Genital Mutilation (TFGM) programme, with the support of UNFPA and other organizations.

Hundreds of other girls, however, still face this brutal practice in various parts of Tanzania. It is predominant in Manyara, where the prevalence among females is 71 per cent, as well as Dodoma (64 per cent), Arusha (57 per cent), Singida (51 per cent) and Mara (40 per cent). 
Over a period of seven years more than 2000 girls have passed through the alternative rites of passage at Masanga, and this year a further 134 in the neighboring district of Serengeti will do so. The education provided to these girls is aimed at protecting them from child marriage, teenage pregnancy, forced female genital mutilation and aborted education.

FGM is a harmful traditional practice that results in significant health problems for women and girls and violates their human rights," says Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Tanzania Country Representative. "FGM is deeply entrenched in the traditional practices of the community and often is protected by local leaders. It is good that here in Mara region, the efforts for its eradication have been directed and led by the communities to create the needed change." Nothing justifies the continued practice of FGM, she states.

"It is an obstacle to the attainment of the health, development and human rights goals, not only for girls and women but also for all members of society. In the 21st Century, no woman or girl should undergo FGM, suffer or die due to it. Addressing the persistent inequalities that negatively affect women's and girl's health and well-being is part of the unfinished business of the United Nations," says Dr. Kanem.

Ngaribas (cutters) as agents of change 
To ensure that efforts to end FGM include every member of society, especially those who are directly involved, 11 former traditional cutters (ngaribas) were trained on the effects of FGM as well as the concept of human rights, batik-making and other entrepreneurial skills. They had decided voluntarily to down cutting tools following negotiations with Masanga Centre and the district government, and after years of awareness-raising and legal sector strengthening. 
Nyanjiga (not her real name), 37, began mutilating girls when she was 28 years old. "My grandmother was a famous and respected cutter in our community. When she died I was chosen to take over her job. There was no way I could refuse because that was my fate as an elder grandchild," she says. "During the FGM season I was mutilating 15-20 girls per day and my wage was Tshs. 15,000 per girl ($8)."

The majority of Tanzanians earn a relatively low income. More than 28 per cent of the population is living below the national poverty line. The average Tanzanian earns Tshs. 2,135 ($1.25) a day. A ngariba therefore earns almost seven times the national daily income for mutilating one girl! The ngariba shares this income with the traditional leaders, but it is clearly a lucrative business.

Nyanjiga is one of a number of traditional cutters who decided to end their involvement in the practice in 2014. Together with traditional leaders in the area they made a public declaration to end FGM, indicating the community's readiness to change. Not surprisingly, Nyanjiga's decision was met with resistance and threats from some community members and clan elders.

"I decided to stop because I learnt of the effects of FGM and I did not want to be in trouble with the Government, since it has told us to stop," she says. "I wish I could take back all that I have done to these girls, but I can't. The only way to heal my heartache is to educate other cutters who are still doing it, and asking them to stop; and also to make sure that young girls understand the effects of FGM." 
UNFPA in conjunction with other partners is providing capacity building for former cutters, traditional leaders, religious leaders, journalists, teachers, police and judiciary, to ensure that they became agents of change in their societies and help in the fight against FGM. Finding alternative income-generating activities for the ngariba is one strategic piece of a bigger puzzle.

Safer space for boys into manhood 
Marwa, 16, and Wangubo, 15 (not their real names), just like hundreds of other Kurya boys in Mara region, gather every December to celebrate Isaro (male circumcision). The traditional ceremonies that accompany it mark the initiation of boys into manhood. 

But for the first time in this region the performance of the initiation ceremony, at a camp attended by 210 boys, was markedly different. With support from UNFPA, the camp provided a safe space for them to gain knowledge about their bodies and the importance of hospital-based circumcision as opposed to traditional circumcision, as well as gender and human rights issues. They were also taught how to become positive agents of change for gender transformation. 

This is important because the Mara region has the highest incidence in the country of physical and sexual violence against women and the lowest levels of women's decision-making. Most importantly, the camp provided an opportunity for boys who have not been circumcised to undergo the operation safely under the supervision of the medical doctor. Together with their parents and community leaders, the initiates were given training on the benefits of hospital-based circumcision. Their parents were encouraged to take them to a hospital to remove the foreskins surgically. Previously, traditional circumcisers without any medical training were responsible for this exercise. 

"I never wanted to undergo traditional circumcision," says Mwita. "I was very happy when my parents agreed that I could join the boys' camp for safe circumcision. I learnt a lot of things during the camp - that it is not right to hit anyone, especially women; how to respect myself and others; and how to be a better man in my society and family." 
The main objectives of this first-ever boys' camp was to provide a safe space for them to escape the traditional circumcision knife, which has led to numerous deaths and injuries in the past. According to research conducted in 2009 by the National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR), Tarime district had the highest rate of circumcision-related injuries. 

As part of their sensitization, the boys received voluntary counselling for HIV. During traditional circumcision, the same tool is used to circumcise more than three boys, which poses a serious risk of infection, especially HIV. One of the biggest achievements of the boys' camp is the formation and launching of the Tanzania Safe Circumcision programme (TaSaCi), which is to be introduced in various schools through the Tanzania Gender Network Programme's (TGNP) School Gender Clubs. 

The camp was organized by TGNP Mtandao, with support from UNFPA, and launched on 4 December 2014 in Sirari, Tarime district. Boys aged 5-19 years checked into the camp for a total of 34 days. 
The camp and its advice for parents - to ensure that their boys undergo male medical circumcision - will not only ensure that circumcision among the Kurya people is safer, but it will also help protect them against HIV and other infections.

- Sawiche Wamunza