analysisBy Alvar Mwakyusa
Communities within Karatu district in Arusha region mutilate infant girls in accordance to traditional beliefs that the most sensitive part of a woman makes her promiscuous. Having got rid of the big fanfare usually done when the girls are teenagers they have now resorted to doing it quietly when the girls are still toddlers.
A two-week long survey in the district has established that unlike in the past when "the initiation into womanhood" ceremony was a public affair amid vibrant festivities, they are currently conducted secretly without any revelry. Female genital mutilation (FGM) or 'aluthoo' in the vernacular of the mostly Wairak (also known as Wambulu) tribesmen and women of Karatu district, is however losing grounds, thanks to government efforts in tackling the problem.
"Circumcision of women is still practised, though on small extent, in farthest villages young girls are cut, unlike the past, however, the exercise is not accompanied by the then traditional festivities," according to Ms Langew Ama of Rhotia Kati village in the district.
FGM is considered among gender based violence (GBV) against women and children and it has been outlawed. The Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) recently facilitated a survey in the district to assess the magnitude of the problem.
Apart from FGM, the study also looked into other forms of GBV such as rape, abandonment of families, beatings of women, among others. Separate studies were also conducted in 14 regions countrywide, nine regions in Tanzania Mainland and five regions in Zanzibar.
The Ward Executive Officer (WEO) for Karatu, Mr Paulo Lagwen, said during an interview that cases of FGM in his ward are non-existent. "I, however, understand that such cases are still practised in some areas, mostly in villages and without the knowledge of government officials," Mr Lagwen said.
His sentiments were echoed by his Endamarariek counterpart, Mr Omari Mshana, who said he had not received any case of a girl or woman being mutilated since he reported at his work station over a year and half ago. Ms Agnes John is a coordinator at an interfaith organization in Karatu that deals with plight of marginalized women, she told this paper that female circumcision was still being conducted in some areas and it was difficult to trace them, given the secrecy shrouding the humiliating act.
The interfaith organization, which brings together all religions in Karatu, was established in 2007 in a bid to assist women and children against gender based violence. It also helps to empower women economically through issuance of loans to enable them make ends meet.
"Everything is conducted in a very secret manner that very few people would be aware of it," Ms Agnes told this paper in an interview. She called for massive public awareness, particularly in rural areas, on the dangers of genital mutilation among women, in a bid to address the problem. Interestingly, some Wairak men have no problem with circumcised women. A bodaboda (motorbike) rider, Mr Max Sixtus told the 'Daily News' he was okay with circumcised women since the practice has existed for time immemorial.
"In the past women who were not circumcised were hardly married. Thanks to modernity and interaction of various tribes with different backgrounds and customs which has made the practice to start fading away in urban areas," he said. The Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act (SOSPA), a 1998 amendment to the penal code, specifically prohibits FGM. Section 169a (1) of the act states that anyone 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 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.
On the global arena, for almost three decades now FGM has remained a top priority for United Nations agencies and NGOs worldwide. The UN Commission on Human Rights had adopted a resolution condemning the FGM practice in 1952. The Economic and Social Council invited the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the persistence of customs subjecting girls to FGM ritual operations in 1958. Three years later the call was again repeated.
The practice was denounced by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1979. Later, in 1989 the Convention on the Rights of the Child identified Female Genital Mutilation as a harmful traditional practice. The most affected regions in Tanzania include Mara, Dodoma, Arusha, Manyara, Kilimanjaro as well as Singida, Morogoro, Iringa and Mbeya.
Also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, FGM is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as; "all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
It is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It may take place in a hospital, but is usually performed, without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor or scissors. According to the WHO, it is practised in 28 countries in western, eastern and north-eastern Africa, in parts of the Middle East and within some immigrant communities in Europe, North America, and Australasia.
The WHO estimates that between 100 and 140 million women and girls around the world have experienced the procedure, including 92 million in Africa. FGM has no health benefits and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue and interferes with the natural functions of girls' and women's bodies.
Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue. Long-term consequences can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections; cysts; infertility; an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths and the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.
Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks. FGM as ever remains a controversial practice, whose origins continue to be as much debatable. Religious experts contend that FGM is a foreign cultural practice which is not sanctioned in any of religious texts. While, medical experts say that even a scratch or small cut on the clitoris is a dangerous procedure to perform on infants during FGM.