There are two major tribes in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania: the Maasai and the Chagga. Although, the tribes were all united in the mid 1960s when Tanzania became one country, the history and tradition of these two once at war tribes are still discussed today.
Tanzania is made up of around 120 tribes, several of which still practice female genital mutilation (FGM). Where I am located, in the Kilimanjaro region, 16 tribes practice level 1 and 2 of FGM, which include cutting parts (level 1) or the whole (level 2) clitoris of a woman. May people ask why? It primarily comes down to culture and tradition, and a lack of proper education on the topic. Although, things are starting to change in Tanzania, there is still an emphasis of being a virgin when married, and parents go to great extents to ensure their daughters are virgins when married; this includes limiting or stopping the female sex drive or having sex for pleasure, which is why the clitoris is cut or removed. The older folk tails stem from more elaborate stories, for example that female clitoris is incredibly powerful and can kill a man during sex.
Currently the FGM rate in the Kilimanjaro region is 21.5 percent, only have decreased 14.5 percent over the past 22 years. With UNICEF making a huge push to end FGM, more non-profits are working to educate young girls on what FGM is. Currently, FGM is illegal in Tanzania and someone who cuts a young woman can face up to 10 years in prison. However, very few young girls are willing to step forward and say they have been mutilated since it could result in their parents going to jail. So one turns to educating young women or the ‘next generation’ on what FGM is.
When asked, several young girls under the age of 12 note that FGM is a great honor; it’s when a girl becomes a woman. When a girl is mutilated in a tribe, it is a day of great celebration and several young girls will note that when their time comes several cows and goats will be killed in their honor and the girls will be able to not work as hard since they will be a woman. Additionally, several tribes like the Maasai will have young girls change the color of their tribal clothes, adding a blue stripe to the traditional red clothing, to note they have gone through this honorary event.
Several non-profits have been working in the region to educate women on this old tradition and to inform them of the risks of being mutilated. However, a non-profit aide worker noted that several girls who have been mutilated will be angry when they show up at the schools to educate, because they are turning something they viewed to be positive into something negative. It is also something that is rarely spoken about, so the older girls who have been mutilated are angry that the younger girls are being taught about what FGM is because the mutilated girls are embarrassed that they were mutilated. After educating the young girls, and showing them an incredibly graphic video of a FGM procedure, non-profits offer the girls a safe haven if they are facing mutilation. Currently the safe haven in the Kilimanjaro region houses 30 girls who are at risk of being mutilated at home. When a girl goes to the safe haven, the non-profits goal is the work with the parents to educate them of the risks of FGM. Additionally, the non-profits work with local law enforcement explaining the procedure is illegal. After family counseling, most girls are safely returned to their homes.
So what are the risks of FGM? There are immediate risks during the procedure, like a 9 month year old girl who bled to death when being mutilated at home with a razor by her 16 year old mother, and there are long term risks. The long term risks include improper scaring which can cause a women to lose bladder control or bleed out while giving birth. Additionally, sex becomes very painful and is only done to reproduce, causing women to be depressed and fearful when their husbands want sex. Lastly, many women will be put on special diets during pregnancy to produce a very small baby, limiting the risks of tearing the scare tissue from FGM and bleeding to death while giving birth. Many pregnant mothers are assigned an older woman to monitor and limit her food intake, to ensure a small baby. This leads to premature and at high risk births, which adds to the continued high rate of infant mortality within Tanzania.
How can you help? Several non-profits view education to be the key to stopping this incredibly dangerous tradition. Non-profits also empower women by teaching them job skill sets and giving them jobs (ex. soap making); limiting a women’s need to rely on her husband. The goods that are produced by these women can be bought online or people can donate directly to non-profits who are working to eliminate FGM. Additionally, USAID plays a huge role in helping women who have been mutilated, paying (transport, accommodations, and the surgery) for women to undergo reconstructive surgery; allowing women to regain bladder control and limiting the risks of pregnancy and births.
Pictured is a traditional mutilation kit. With this practice now being illegal in Tanzania, people now use razor blades to mutilate young girls. With this ‘tradition’ also come the risk of spreading HIV/AIDS.