In the Kurya community in northern Tanzania, female genital mutilation (FGM) is ingrained in tradition. The community is thought to have one of the highest rates of cutting among women aged between 15 and 49 in the country. An informal survey carried out last year by the Association for the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (ATFGM) found almost 80 percent of girls had been cut in one Kurya village – the national average is 10 percent.
Since 2008, ATFGM has been working to educate the Kurya people on the dangers of FGM. According to spokesman Valerian Mgani, the organization has helped over 2,500 girls escape FGM, a procedure seen by many in Tanzania as a necessary rite of passage.
The organization runs awareness campaigns to tell girls who they can turn to, such as teachers and the police, if they are being forced into the procedure. Girls who are being pressured by their families to undergo FGM – which can result in infection, infertility, sexual complications and even death – can also go to the ATFGM offices, where they will get shelter and counseling as the organization goes through an intervention and reconciliation process with their families. And ATFGM also holds an annual camp, which is seen as a safe haven for girls looking to escape the month-long cutting season every December.
At the camp, girls learn about their sexual and reproductive health rights, while taking part in games and sporting activities. Recognizing that FGM is seen by many as essential to the transition into womanhood, ATFGM’s camp puts on alternative celebrations for the girls, with songs and dancing and a traditional blessing that involves a milk bath. Members of the organization also go out into the community to retrain the people who perform FGM, so they no longer have to rely on cutting to make a living.
Women & Girls spoke with Mgani about the program and what more needs to be done to eradicate FGM in Tanzania.
Women & Girls: Why is FGM so common within the Kurya community?
Valerian Mgani: FGM is very common among the Kurya people because of the traditional belief that an uncut girl will not get married. In fact, one could say FGM is part and parcel of the Kurya traditional norms.
Women & Girls: What challenges have you faced in the fight against FGM within the community?
Mgani: Firstly, most community members do not like what we are preaching, therefore they have fought us all the way. We also have instances of girls attending our rescue camps only to be rejected by their parents upon their return home. Finally, we are also challenged by a lack of funds. For instance, at last year’s camp we had budgeted for 100 girls and we had nearly 300 participants.
Women & Girls: How much success have you had changing people’s beliefs and behavior relating to FGM?
Mgani: We have had some good success. Currently, we have 42 girls we are sponsoring to either attend primary school, secondary school or vocational training. We have also succeeded in training some of the traditional circumcisers from 13 Kurya tribes on the dangers of FGM. These traditional circumcisers and traditional leaders are the ones who initiate the FGM practice. We are now empowering these circumcisers with entrepreneurial skills and also providing them with some funds and equipment to allow them to start other businesses, rather than depending on the money they receive from cutting girls.
Women & Girls: So would you say attitudes toward FGM are changing?
Mgani: There is a slight change from the time that we started having awareness sessions with community members in 2008, so yes, I would say some of them are slowly changing their perspectives. But we still have a long way to go and we still need to continue to educate them on the effects of FGM, child marriage and gender-based violence.
Women & Girls: What is your alternative rite-of-passage program for girls?
Mgani: During the cutting season every December, we host a rescue camp where girls seeking protection from forced FGM can stay until the end of the cutting season. We teach the girls about their sexual and reproductive health rights; we educate them on the dangers of FGM and child marriage; we also have sporting activities and games and some alternative rites-of-passage ceremonies.
We also equip them with the knowledge on how to save themselves from FGM and we inform them on where to go for help [ATFGM offices, teachers or police], if ever they find themselves in a situation where they may be forced into FGM.
Women & Girls: You mentioned some girls who attend the camp are rejected by their families when they go home because they have not undergone FGM. How do you stop that from happening?
Mgani: We try to reconcile the girls with their parents. From the time they enter the camp, we make contact with their parents and their guardians to educate them on the dangers of FGM and make sure that they will accept their children after our camp. When there are guardians who refuse to accept their daughters, we make provisions to pay for [the girls’] education.
Women & Girls: What more do you think needs to be done in the fight against FGM?
Mgani: I think we need more collaboration – firstly, between organizations fighting FGM, especially those from other regions. Secondly, I think there should be more collaboration between government departments and NGOs to enable us to educate the whole country on the harmful effects of FGM.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.