At least 7.9 million women and girls in Tanzania are estimated to have undergone FGM. (UNICEF; 2013)
In the last two episodes we have seen the lengths and depths that four young Tanzanian girls bravely went through to escape from going through FGM, and even forced marriages. They are a representation of hundreds of girls in Tanzania who face this constant threat and risk all they have, including family ties, to try and remain safe.
After reading the two episodes, it feels natural to be angry and even despise the people who subject the innocent girls to such atrocious ordeals.
However, in order to understand the entirety of female genital mutilation (FGM), we also have to understand why there are people who are willing to inflict so much unnecessary pain.
Doris, while on her journey in Singida region, met with Hawa, an ex-cutter and a current midwife. Hawa was very welcoming and forth-coming about the role of a ngariba, and her experience as one before she stopped and became an active advocate on ending FGM:
“When I was young, I used to live with my grand-mother who loved me very much. She told me that when I was being cut, I didn’t embarrass her because I did not cry out. So when I was young and they brought her girls to be cut, she would call me to help her hold the girls’ legs…
My grandmother bestowed me her most valuable gift because I was brave when I was being cut – she trained me to be a cutter. During the initiation ceremony, they would dress us in wreaths and a waist sash with beads like this [shows her] that would mean you are a warrior and a winner.
She told me that I would continue to help her especially when her eyes couldn’t see well, because we believed it was a highly prestigious duty in the society. It was believed that a girl who was cut was popular, respectful and her family was praised for good manners. Moreover, FGM was a means to preserve a girl’s chastity for marriage, while an uncut girl was considered promiscuous.
I underwent FGM after I completed class seven. I was told that I couldn’t continue with school because I was a girl, and that was the culture in our society. I was the only girl in a family with seven male siblings.
And so I continued to live with my grandmother. Whenever she performed FGM, the families of the girls would bring her goats. When the goats had kids, my grandmother gave the kids to me. When they brought her chicken, we would sell them and get some money for our upkeep.”
Namaiyani, an ex-cutter, and now business woman met with Diana during her journey in Arusha. She is a very confident woman, who has become a formidable advocate on the right to education for all children and ending FGM. She also shared her background:
“I am a mother of three, I am an ex-cutter and an activist against female genital cutting. I stopped being a cutter after I became fully aware of the negative consequences of cutting or mutilation. I now believe it is a harmful tradition which should be stopped.
I was also cut as a girl and I grew up in a society where it was normal to be cut. No one talked of the negative effects. We were told that a girl who undergoes FGM is pure and is not promiscuous. They also said that it would cure us of “lawalawa” [believed to be vaginal bacterial infection]
I had been a cutter for more than five years and had cut more than 100 girls, before HIMS organization came to our village and taught us how harmful FGM is. I understood the effects and together with some other cutters, we pledged to stop.
I still meet with girls who ask to be cut because they believed in the myths that an uncut girl stinks like a billy-goat; that she has not fulfilled her role as a woman.
To be a ngariba [cutter] does not mean you have to come from a particular lineage or have a particular age. You have to be attached to a practicing and highly experienced one to learn from her. So you will assist her by holding down the girls as you observe closely what she does. It usually depends on how fast you are as a learner before you can also become one.
Parents who want to cut their girls also observe the cases that you have handled before. If you have more cases of girls healing fast after you cut them, you’ll be the most preferred ngariba.
Ngaribas also earn a living from this. We used to charge 30,000 Tanzanian shillings (Approx. 12 Euros) for every girl you cut. We also received sheep and chicken from the families. If the families slaughtered a cow or a goat, the ngariba would be invited to share in the meals, as well. It was considered prestigious to be a ngariba”
There are many harmful myths that surround FGM, and they vary depending on the community, tribe or clans. However, most of these myths are centered on the behavior, health and worth of a woman. They further stem on the value, or lack thereof, attached to the girl or woman by her family and society, depending on whether she is cut or not.
In Mara region, some of the tribes that embrace female genital mutilation as rite of passage for girls, believe that an uncut girl who reaches puberty will be a bad omen to the family, clan and community. For instance, an uncut girl would be barred from opening the cow shed because she may invoke a curse and all the cattle in the shed would die. Some are banned from serving food or drinks for certain family members because they are considered dirty, unworthy or they may bring bad-luck.
Even though female genital mutilation is performed as a rite of passage – an initiation – for young girls to cross into adulthood, it is also considered as a cure or prevention of diseases in some other societies. It is important to underline that FGM is not a medical procedure, instead it compromises the natural functions of the female body and has serious health repercussions.
Tanzania has made progress in reducing the prevalence of FGM from 18 per cent to 10 percent in the last 20 years. However, even with this progress, there is a disturbing fact: One in ten women in Tanzania (aged 15-49) has undergone FGM. Of these, 35 per cent underwent FGM before the age of one. (TDHS-MS; 2015/2016)
In the next episode we will learn more of this disturbing fact. Why are there more cases of under one year old girls being cut?