A COUPLE of Maasai elders in Emboreti village, Simanjiro district, Mr Filipo ole Koreya and Mr Alaitetei ole Samburi both in their late fifties declared with scorn that there is nothing wrong with circumcising girls. These elders practise polygamy and are proud to share the fact that all their wives underwent the cut.
As far as they are concerned female circumcision is part and parcel of their tradition. "Our mothers are circumcised and they're alive. They bore children and are healthy we do not understand the fuss around female circumcision." Mr Koreya argued even though recently he has learnt there are dangers surrounding female circumcision.
In the Maasai culture female circumcision is one of the rituals girls undergo to commemorate the fact that they have reached womanhood. Other activities that accompany the circumcision are grooming and intense education on cultural and marital values.
According to Mr Samburi, Maasai men are discouraged from marrying uncircumcised women as they consider them as incomplete women. The men believe that uncircumcised women make unfaithful, stubborn wives who demand for sex. For Ms Miriam Seleiya, Coordinator of the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Network (AFNET) in Simanjiro District, she says her NGO still has a long way to go in sensitising the community on the dangers of female circumcision and how it infringes on women's rights. Her office in Simanjiro is slowly getting the message across through programmes on community radios drama and the distribution of leaflets.
Female circumcision unlike male circumcision does not have any health benefits. For that reason it falls under Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Depending on where it is practised it varies from cutting off the most sensitive part of a woman's genitals, the clitoris to cutting off the clitoris and all the external genitalia. Hardly done under medical supervision, the procedure takes about 20 minutes.
In some areas it is carried out during infancy. The most typical ages are between seven and 10 years, before puberty sets in. Without any anathesia the poor girls are held down against their will while an elderly woman cuts away. The regional Coordinator of the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices, Ms Telecia Ntusi Mwalukasa, says the main reason girls undergo circumcision is because communities strongly believe that it prevents promiscuous behaviour amongst women.
"With government prohibiting FGM, communities that practice female circumcision are now targeting baby girls and have done away with the colourful ceremonies to avoid the long arm of the law," says Ms Mwalukasa. Tanzania is among the nations actively working on anti-FGM programmes and other traditional practices that adversely affect the health of women and children. The Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, a 1998 amendment to the Penal Code, specifically prohibits FGM. Section 169a (1) of the act states that any one having custody, charge or care of a girl under 18 years of age who causes her to undergo FGM commits the offence of cruelty to children.
Punishment for any person convicted of the offence is imprisonment of from five to 15 years or a fine not exceeding 300,000/- or both. However, despite this law and on-going campaigns against FGM, it is still practised by 20 of the country's 130 ethnic groups. The most affected areas include Mara, Dodoma, Arusha, Manyara, Kilimanjaro, Singida, Morogoro, Iringa, Mbeya and Zanzibar. According to health statistics, FGM, affects 18 per cent of the female population in Tanzania.
Communities that strongly support FGM say it upholds girl's virginity, discourages female promiscuity, promotes cleanliness and guarantees marital prospects. Amongst ethnic groups that embrace FGM, social stigmas are associated with women who have not undergone circumcision. For instance, there is a general perception that an uncircumcised woman will suffer ill health and will be cursed. In other communities uncircumcised women are not allowed to perform certain tasks.
In Singida Region, FGM is largely performed by the Wanyaturu, whose main occupation is cultivation and livestock keeping. Residents of Singida and Manyara regions assert that FGM was practised as a necessary preparation for a woman's marital and family responsibilities. Government, supported by NGOs and human rights activists, are campaigning hard against FGM because it is a danger to health and life. FGM is usually performed without anesthesia and is intensely painful. Life threatening complications include contracting Aids/HIV, hemorrhaging, blood poisoning, tetanus and gangrene.
Long-term consequences include persistent pain, psychological distress and chronic infections as a result of the shared cutting instruments. Others are genital scarring which can obstruct childbirth, causing permanent injuries even death to women in labour.
In the long term women may suffer anxiety, depression and frigidity leading to sexual dysfunction that may cause marital conflicts.
All in all, protracted campaigns against FGM, communication strategies, religious influence and exposure have made people in slowly but surely discard the harmful traditional practice.