Circumcision rescue operation fails in Tanzania

Posted: 12 June 2002

Author: Alakok Mayombo

Efforts to save girls from the outlawed practice of female genital mutilation, (otherwise known as female circumcision), in Tanzania's Mara Region in late 2001 have failed, according to Tarime district commissioner Paschal Mibiti.

At least 1,500 schoolgirls were subjected to the procedure in the northern region, the majority succumbing during the long academic break.

Fourteen year-old Gati Juma was one of the prospective initiates.

"I'm not sure if I will be able to escape; my father is too harsh," Juma, a pupil at Nyamisangura Primary, told Panos in November. Her fate is unknown.

Approximately 140 million women and girls, mostly in Africa, have undergone FGM and another two million are at risk every year, according to the World Health Organization. The Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre estimates that 1.5 million women have been subjected to the practice.

Parents and communities who support FGM believe it protects girls' virginity, discourages female 'promiscuity', promotes cleanliness, guarantees marital prospects, improves fertility and prevents stillbirths. Many defend its continuation, citing religious teachings and deeply held cultural beliefs.

Its opponents charge that FGM is a violation of women's and girls' human rights and condemn it as a form of gender-based violence - carried out mainly on those unable to withhold their consent. Ten African countries have banned FGM.

FGM it is also a danger to health and life. Usually performed without anaesthesia and intensely painful, FGM - the cutting or removal of external female genitalia - is often performed in unhygienic conditions with razor blades, knives or broken glass.

Immediate, life-threatening complications are haemorrhaging, blood poisoning, tetanus and gangrene. Long-term consequences include persistent pain, psychological distress and chronic infections, including the risk of HIV infection from shared cutting instruments. One outcome of FGM is genital scarring which can obstruct childbirth, causing permanent injury - even death - to women in labour.

In 1998 the Tanzanian government criminalised FGM, saying the practice is cruelty to girl children under 18 years of age. The crime is punishable by up to 15 years' imprisonment, a fine of up to 300,000 Tanzanian shillings ($340), or both.

In reality, the law has not resulted in a single prosecution, and the few adults who have been tried were acquitted, usually because daughters were unwilling to testify against their parents. Many campaigners worry that the law may be forcing FGM underground. In the Singida region in central Tanzania, people circumvent the law by privately cutting baby girls when they are a few days old.

In Mara region the ceremony is now shrouded in secrecy. When Mara elder Marwa Mohabe announced in July 2001 that the annual mass circumcision of girls and boys would take place in private, district commissioner Mibiti pledged that his office and a coalition of non-government organisations (NGOs) would try and prevent it by enlisting the help of village elders.

"We are going to educate and persuade [the elders] to stop this plan without using police force," said Professor Patroba Ondiek, programme coordinator of the Mara NGO Save Children of Tarime (SACHITA).

Although 15 elders initially agreed to stop the ceremony, their promises proved illusory. "Many elders complained that they were unable to handle the situation," Mibiti explains. "FGM is a deep-rooted tradition."

Tragically, the tradition kills. Approximately 25 out of every 6,000 girls who undergo the procedure die every year in the Mara region alone, according to a 1999 report by The Tanzania Media Women's Association (TAMWA). But even though most teenaged girls survive FGM, the procedure often coincides with their premature withdrawal from school, due to arranged marriage or pregnancy.

"For every 10 girls mutilated during the mass ceremony, three to five will drop-out of school," says Elvida Ndosi, an official with the Ministry of Community Development Women and Child Affairs in Mara. Parents are offered bride price (a payment in cash or kind from the groom's family) after FGM because daughters are now considered marriageable, she explains.

Even if girls are aware of FGM's dangers, many fear that without it they will never marry, TAMWA researchers found. Girls do gain respect after FGM, agrees SACHITA president Peter Mwera. Without it she is called a Msagane, a disrespectful word meaning someone who is uncivilised and infertile.

In the past, the form of FGM practiced in Mara involved excising the clitoris [the female organ primarily responsible for a woman's sexual pleasure] and the labia minora [the folds at the opening of the vagina]. As a result many women - denied sexual fulfilment - do not enjoy sexual relations with their partners.

"Our men complain and they go out looking for women who have not been mutilated," says 44-year-old Rhobi Mwita, a Tarime grandmother who underwent FGM when she was 12.

"They just want you to finish and the thing [vagina] is cold, but those without FGM have enough 'heat'," agrees 22 year-old Max Chacha, who works in a cinema hall in Tarime Town.

Despite her reservations, Mwita still insists her granddaughters will be circumcised. "This is our culture. If they refuse I will disown them," she asserts.

In an effort to lessen the dangers of FGM in Mara, SACHITA has introduced a milder form which involves cutting the clitoris or slicing off the tip of the organ. Nicknamed "CCM style" - the initials of Tanzania's ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi - CCM implies modernity, according to Mwera. He justifies it, saying that it is difficult to make people completely give up the practice.

Though less invasive, CCM too can cause scarring and childbirth complications, says Dr Juma Kakomanga, head of Tarime District Hospital. "What matters is not the new name of FGM, but what it entails," says Ananilea Nkya, director of TAMWA.

It is not easy to determine whether the enactment of Tanzania's 1998 law has reduced FGM. "People need more education about FGM and the law itself, [but to do this] takes resources," says Nkya, pointing out that information about the anti-FGM law is not yet available in the main language, Kiswahili.

In neighbouring Kenya innovative schemes, including working with communities to create safe rituals to mark girls' passage into adulthood, have reduced the practice.

People also need to understand that "a woman without FGM can be fertile and faithful in her marriage," says Nkya, and young people may be tuning into her message.

"I don't care whether girls have undergone FGM or not," declares unmarried 19- year-old vendor Bomani Kitulo. "What matters is love."

Source: Panos Features, May 2002.

Related links:

Female Genital Mutilation - Facts and Figures

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