ANNASTANZIA Bhoke (Not her real name) escaped from her home in Tarime District, Mara Region to Dar es Salaam in November last. She was running away from the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) practices she was about to undergo.
"I had come back home after closing school on November 11 last year and I was informed that preparations were underway for a traditional ritual at my home and it was something to do with me," says the 12-year old girl in Nyankore Village, Tarime District in Mara Region.
The first child in a family of four was initially confident that she was safe from the practice which is normally conducted in Tarime and elsewhere in Tanzania between November and December every year. Bhoke says that her parents had expressed no interests in letting her undergo the traditional ritual until last November when they came up with plans to let her undergo the brutal act.
"I had the information from my neighbors and some family members that my parents were planning a traditional ceremony for me to be mutilated... and that is when I decided to run away from home," she narrates amid tears rolling her cheeks.
Bhoke is among thousands of girls who have fled their homes to various safe places as they escape FGM in Tarime and other places in Mara Region.
A survey conducted by this reporter showed that some 123 girls in Mara Region fled their homes escaping FGM set to be practiced in various districts in the region between November and December last year (2018).
The Director and Founder of Mugumu Safe House Organisation, Ms Robi Samuel, told this reporter in an interview that the girls fled their homes on different occasions in fear of being mutilated.
"They are currently accommodated at safe houses under the care of Mugumu Safe House Organisation," she explained.
Mugumu Safe house is a non-governmental organisation that fights FGM and child marriage in Tanzania by offering safe places for girls running away from FGM.
The organisation also offers the girls a range of short courses during their stay to build their confidence and understanding of independence.
According to Ms Samuel, 60 of the girls who fled their homes are being accommodated at Mugumu safe house while a batch of 63 others are accommodated in a safe house in Butiama.
"So far we have 123 girls who have fled their homes in fear of being subjected to the genital cut, 63 of them are at Mugumu as 60 others are in Butiama," she said.
Between November and December each year marks the traditional cutting season in Mara Region where thousands of girls are subjected to FGM. Reports show that the last FGM took place in 2016. An investigation conducted by this reporter in Kitunda and Kivule Wards in Ilala District Dar es Salaam Region, revealed that many girls in Mara were subjected to the practice while others managed to escape.
Kitunda and Kivule wards in Ilala are mostly inhabited with people from Mara, a region which is widely known for the practice. "Yes we did it in December," says a traditional healer in Tarime, Mr Rioba Mwita, insisting that the practice is there to stay as long as traditionalists still exist.
Without giving more details on how FGM was conducted, amid tight security by the government and other anti-FGM campaigner's, Mr Mwita said the practice in Kitunda and elsewhere is carried out in secrecy to avoid the long arm of the state.
When asked about the people who undertake the practice, Mr Mwita declined to talk about them insisting that they would only be availed once the girls are ready for the cut.
However, some of the occupants at Kitunda area said that the cutters are normally transported from Mugumu, Tarime and Serengeti to Kitunda where they cut and disappear.
"They are exchanging the cutters, those in Mugumu are taken to Tarime and those for Tarime are brought in Kitunda. The exchange is done during the cutting season (November and December)," said one Benson Maroa a resident of Kitunda Ward. According to the Maroa, once the season is over the cutters flee back to their areas.
Call for government initiatives to save girls from FGM
The Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA), expressed the need for the government to team up with girls and women rights advocates to save the girls lined up for FGM in Kitunda and other places in the country.
"We call upon the government and other people stake holders, NGOs to team up and intensify security at the areas prone to FGM in order to help pull the innocent girls out of the horrific acts," she said insisting for immediate actions, creating public awareness in the areas concerned.
"This is the right time, the social welfare officers, police gender desks, the anti-FGM advocates and other well-wishers to go into the areas and educate the public to discourage the practices" said the Executive Director of TAMWA Ms Eda Sanga. Reacting over the information, Ms Samuel hinted that the police should launch a manhunt on suspected cutters and be subjected to legal measures.
"As we educate the public and campaigning on anti-FGM, the police have a very vital role to play in ensuring the suspected cutters are hunted and put into the legal measures," she said adding that the people involved in the mutilation of the girls' genitals should be severely punished in order to discourage the FGM. Ms Samuel said that the suspected cutters once arrested they are released within a short time on grounds that they are not guilty despite having been arrested with FGM facilties.
On the other hand, Ms Robi pleaded for financial support for the cutters who have headed the call and resigned from practicing FGM. She said the majority of the cutters who suffer from financial problems since they lack support after they stop FGM practices.
"Despite being termed as a traditional norm, the cutters involved in the FGM to generate income, they received the monies from cutting the girls," she said some of the genital cutters suffer financial problems after they desist FGM.
She added that the Mugumu Organisation have got 12 of the cutters who resigned from the FGM and joined the antiFGM campaign.
Minister of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, Ummy Mwalimu, said recently that the government has directed social welfare officers at regional and district levels to work closely with the police and ward executives in identifying areas where FGM is still embraced and taking legal action against the parents or guardians involved.
She said that social welfare officers who fail to act on the directive should be prepared to take responsibility for any FGM cases in their jurisdiction.
Tanzania banned FGM through its Special Provisions Act 1998, but the practice is still rife almost 20 years on as girls, particularly those in rural areas, still have to endure FGM which is part of a larger ritual initiating them into womanhood and include a period of seclusion and education about the rights and duties of a wife.
To date, FGM affects 18 per cent of Tanzania's female population, according to available statistics where as one in every 10 Tanzanian females has been cut.
Up to 7.9 million girls and women in Tanzania are thought to have undergone FGM, with the illegal procedure often carried out in secret initiation, or rites of passage, ceremonies.