Campaigners against female genital mutilation are calling on the Tanzanian government to intervene to stop thousands of illegal circumcisions happening in the north of the country.
Around 5,000 girls risk being subjected to the ancient rite of passage in the Mara region this month – the traditional cutting season – according to the British charity FORWARD, which campaigns against FGM.
FGM, which causes a host of health problems and can prove fatal, is publicly celebrated in Mara by the Kuria tribe even though it was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998.
“Everyone knows where it is happening so the authorities could go in and stop it. We want them to speak to stop the circumcisers and the traditional leaders who sanction the cutting,” said FORWARD’s Africa Programme Manager Elizabeth Gezahegn King.
FORWARD’s Executive Director Naana Otoo-Oyortey, who wrote to the High Commissioner of Tanzania in London this week, said there had been little effort to enforce the law.
“Elections are round the corner and as such there is little appetite to antagonise the traditional leaders,” she added.
The practice is deeply entrenched in parts of Tanzania where FGM is thought to affect up to 7.9 million girls and women, according to U.N. estimates.
Across the country, tens of thousands of girls are at risk, although different tribes practise it at different times of the year and at different ages.
Supporters of FGM say it purifies the girl and is a prerequisite for marriage. Girls who are not cut may be socially ostracised.
Tackling the practice in Tanzania has also been complicated by a myth that FGM cures “lawalawa” – a term used to describe certain vaginal and urinary tract infections.
HUNDREDS OF GIRLS RUN AWAY
Campaigners say circumcisers should be locked up, but there also needs to be more emphasis on protecting girls and educating communities on the health dangers of FGM.
“If you arrest a circumciser, the community will just bring in another one.” Gezahegn King said.
Circumcisers, who earn money from each girl they cut, also need to be trained to do something else to support themselves, or they will carry on.
In Mara, more than 420 girls have sought refuge in recent weeks at a centre in Tarime district, which shelters girls running away from FGM.
Many have fled there with the support of their parents, who often do not want their daughters cut, but who come under huge pressure from their families and communities.
“The stand taken by these young girls and their families is very courageous,” Otoo-Oyortey wrote in her letter.
“We urge the national and local government, police, and other relevant agencies to take immediate action to support the 1000s of girls who have nowhere to seek refuge.”
Gezahegn King said the number of girls refusing to undergo FGM and seeking shelter was rising every year.
“More and more parents do not want their girls to go through it so there is a big, big shift happening, which is encouraging,” she added.
Earlier this week, the BBC reported that 38 people had been arrested after a swoop on a village following FGM rituals.
Offenders face a prison sentence and/or a fine of 300,000 shillings (nearly $200).
But FORWARD said police enforcement of the law was very patchy and broader efforts to tackle FGM were inconsistent.
A report published this month by the anti-FGM campaign group 28 Too Many also found a trend for parents to have their girls cut when they are babies to avoid detection.