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Why the fight against FGM is not working in Mara

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I want to begin this article with words of the former chairman of Tanzania Development Trust Mr. Julian Marcus, ‘In the Name of Your Daughter is the most powerful, compelling, and honest documentary that I think I have ever seen. I came to it with both apprehension and anticipation.’

 

The synopsis of ‘In The Name Of Your Daughter’ which is publicly available at inthenameofyourdaughterfilm.com centres on some of the most courageous girls in the world, children like feisty 12-year old Rosie Makore who ran away from her home to save herself from female genital mutilation (FGM) and the child marriage her parents had planned for her.

 

Terrified of stories of girls bleeding to death during the chillingly named FGM season during the school holidays in December, these young girls, some as young as eight, must face the most difficult choice of their young lives: submit to FGM or risk their lives and run away, not knowing if they’ll ever see their families again.

 

Luckily, there is Rhobi Samwelly, a charismatic woman who protects the girls at a Safe House, and travels around the countryside fighting against this thousand-year-old tradition. Hers is a tough and dangerous job. FGM is illegal in Tanzania but old customs die hard. Men believe that girls’ clitorises must be cut off to reduce promiscuity, and mutilated girls command twice the bride price in cows as uncut girls. In partnership with the Safe House, Mugumu police officer Sijali Nyambuche and her team start cracking down on FGM. In night-time raids they rescue girls at risk and arrest parents and cutters.

 

As the year’s FGM season winds down, in dramatic and heart-breaking reconciliation meetings, parents have to decide if they’ll spare their daughters and take them back, and young girls like Rosie must decide if they’ll be safe if they return home. Set in the stunning landscape of East Africa’s Serengeti district, this is ultimately an inspiring and hopeful story of brave young girls standing up for their human rights and fighting for change in their community.

 

Congratulations to my sisters Rhobi Samwelly and Afande Sijali Nyambuche, I can confirm that you are treading a risky and dangerous path. You risk excommunication from our community by the council of elders through the work that you do and above all, you put your lives at risk every time a girl escapes FGM. I salute you!

 

There are critical ethical and child protection breaches throughout this film, which I want to ignore, at least in this article. I want us to focus on solutions. First things first, a disclaimer, this documentary is filmed in my community. These are my people – the fight against FGM has lived with us far too long. My father remembers his involvement in the fight in the 1950s’.

 

I strongly believe there are underlying features in the fight against FGM that are recipe for failure. FGM has never been about the girls. FGM is about embracing what is left of our traditions. Many of our values have been brainwashed in our young people. So FGM is among the few things left that identify and define us. You must note that we are a very proud lot with traditional governance structures highly respected by all our community members albeit ignored by everyone else including the government.

 

Elites and not so educated, religious and not so religious – all of our people pay attention to details when a message is disbursed by the council of elders. They are respected, feared and are ruthless whose decisions in all matters must not be questioned. These elders have the ability to tax your family, dispossess your community rights such as firewood collection, access to grazing land and fetching water. They can dispossess all that you own through a verdict to excommunicate you. You will have to relocate, not to belong anymore. And boy oh boy, moving out and leaving all that you own, you must!

 

Before colonisation these elders got all their income from ‘taxes, fines and tradition rites of passages fees (including FGM and male circumcision).’ The elders were supposed to lead a slightly well off life including mostly dining on milk and meat. These elders are now ‘starved’ by modern-day governments leaving them largely reliant on FGM and other traditional ceremonies.

 

Plus a politician would most certainly lose re-election, should she make anti FGM her campaign agenda – because the council of elders must agree to your ‘agenda’ for you to garner enough votes to win an election in my community.

 

Even the mighty Roman Catholic Church had a choice to make. Embrace FGM and work or reject it and lose. It stood with its members’ tradition. Therefore even in regards to Christian denominations, only smaller churches namely Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and the Anglican Church are openly anti FGM. Their membership numbers struggle to significantly grow for years. A well-known saying; choices come with consequences.

 

Going back to the FGM fight in the film specifically about cases where justice prevailed with perpetrators currently serving their jail terms – it is commendable. Only it is not a sustainable solution for it is reliant on a select committed yet few police officers and in particular Afande Sijali. Available evidence does not seem to support legal fronted solutions for it has been exactly 20 years since FGM was criminilised in Tanzania. Little seems to have changed despite the illegality of the act.

 

I will conclude with a few suggestions on what needs to be done. I want to agree that safe houses as temporal shelters during the FGM seasons are a good start. Sitting down with the council of elders is in my opinion, the ultimate solution. Available evidence indicates there have been efforts to sit down with elders’ representatives in the past – I can confirm that these representatives are just that – representatives or middlemen. We must strive to find avenues with the council of elders and chat to them ‘directly’ and ‘respectfully.’ Then perhaps, we will have a decree to do away with FGM for good.

 

Kiiya JK is the Chief Executive of @SemaTanzania and has lived FGM within and without his family. His father was among the pioneer fighters of anti-FGM who ‘accepted’ to marry the ‘uncut’ lady within Kurya community in the early years of the fight.

 

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