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Breaking with tradition

In Tanzania, newly cut, pubescent girls are paraded through villages, propelled by sounds of praise and celebratory exultations. They are discouraged from crying during what is believed to be an important rite of female passage. Getting communities to abandon this practice is naturally no easy feat. For this reason, in 2016, MenEngage Tanzania (MET) decided to focus strategically on eradicating the practice and work with a group that largely viewed as being difficult to penetrate and resistant to change – traditional leaders.

“It took us a long time to convince the traditional leaders and communities to even sit and listen to us. They were very resistant,” said Dorothy Ernest, monitoring, evaluation and learning officer at the Children’s Dignity Forum (CDF), the Secretariat for MET. “In the beginning, the well-organised clans would send community members posing as traditional leaders. We only became aware later on that the people we were speaking to, weren’t actually traditional leaders.” Other ways in which community sought to circumvent efforts to change their customs included performing FGM at night and/or in secret, as opposed to the public event that usually followed the practice. In addition, there were cases where girls were being cut at the same ceremony in which boys were being circumcised; again, an attempt to hide the practice.

In the Mara region, where CDF is implementing its FGM programme, there is a 32% prevalence rate among women aged 15-49. The latest Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey indicate a low prevalence for girls 0-14 years, suggesting that girls are either being cut at a later age, or communities are resistant to admit to continuing the practice as they are aware it has been outlawed.

In the nine years that CDF has been working in the town of Tarime in the Mara region, offering training to traditional leaders and creating awareness about the effects of FGM, efforts are finally bearing fruit. “FGM is a practice we grew up with,” said Traditional Leader, Elias Maganya Magori. “We believed if you were circumcised, it would bring wealth to the home. But after trainings with CDF, this has all changed. In my clan, the Bukonye, we have stopped the practice completely. CDF challenged us to go and change the attitudes in our communities. It was not so difficult as we’ve seen the effects of FGM – girls have difficulties in giving birth; there is a lot of blood. Some end up dying; some are affected psychologically.”

Recognising that FGM has financial benefits to the ngaribas (women who are paid to perform the actual cutting) and therefore presents an obstacle to abandoning the practice, alternative to replace the practice required creative thinking. CDF began offering pottery training and sewing workshops to ngaribas in order to increase their capacity to secure income in other ways. In addition, CDF is working with the police to enforce the legislation around FGM and ensure communities are aware of the maximum prison sentence of thirty years for anyone carrying out the practice. In addition, efforts are fuelled by a partnership with the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGM).

There are still several ethnic groups carrying out the practices and CDF’s work is by no means over. In addition, efforts are hampered by groups crossing borders in Kenya and performing FGM there.

FGM’s relationship with child marriage

FGM, child marriage, and teenage pregnancy are inextricably linked. Once a girl has been cut, she is viewed as being ready for marriage. In this way, the issue of teenage pregnancy closely follows the dual challenge of FGM and child marriage. In Tanzania, current legislation does not permit teenage mothers to return to school. In this way girls who have been cut, become wives and mothers at a young age, are prevented from reaching their full academic potential. This sets off or continues a cycle of poverty.

Child marriage has, in the past few years, gained global and continental momentum with the Girls Not Brides campaign and the African Union’s End Child Marriage Campaign respectively. The country has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with, according to UNICEF, 7% of girls being married before the age 15. Together with the Tanzanian Ending Child Marriage Network (TECMN), MET has been advocating for amendments to the Law of Marriage Act, which permits girls to marry at the age of 15, and at the age of 14, with the consent of their parents. Both networks developed a single strategy to work through parliamentarians and identified champions that would drive the agenda forward and influence their peers.

In February 2017, both networks convened a meeting where they were able to address forty MPs (from both the ruling party and the Opposition) on the importance of changing the legislation to reflect the rights of girls. “I urge all of us MPs and civil society organisations to come together to initiate a campaign that will rid our country of the scourge of child marriage from down at the grassroots level,” said Hon. Mary Mwanjelwa Mwanjelwa, a member of the Parliamentarians for Global Action advocating against child marriage. “We need to enhance efforts to end child marriage in Tanzania.” The Hon. Fatma Toufik was equally vocal. “MPs should speed up the process to change the Marriage Act of 1971 by working with civil society organizations to push for change,” she said. “There should be co-ordination with the Ministry of Education to include the issue of child marriage in the school curricula as well as engagement of men and boys in the campaign to end it.”

MET will maintain its advocacy efforts with the Ministry of Health, Gender and Community Development, the Attorney General and the Speaker of Parliament to lobby for access to the parliamentary sessions.

Tackling the issue of child marriage at a policy level and working with men at the community level to stop the practice of FGM, means MET and CDF are working tirelessly to ensure the rights of young girls are not violated and that they are able to thrive physically, psychologically and academically.

MET has had the benefit of engaging with collaborations and other networks in the fight against FGM and child marriage. Organisations hoping to duplicate these efforts will have to ensure there is similar momentum at national level. It is worth remembering that changes to behaviours and attitudes relating to FGM and child marriage are evident only after a long time and sustained input.

28 August 2018
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