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In Tanzania, Maasai women who reject FGM are refused as brides

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 16 Dec 2013 09:41 AM
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Three teenage Maasai girls participate in a traditional ceremony in June 2013. Photo by Zuberi Mussa.
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DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lozwi Longinai was preparing for her wedding day last month in northern Lingate village, but at the last minute her groom changed his mind after realising that his 18-year-old fiancée had not been circumcised.

“This is very bad. We are being rejected by our own society because we have refused to be circumcised,” Longinai complained.

While female genital mutilation (FGM) is on the decline in Tanzania, the practice remains widespread in some rural areas, and in Maasai communities like Lingate in the northern Arusha region, dozens of women are being turned away in marriage because they have refused to be cut, according to an NGO working in the region.

Despite efforts to end the practice, some Maasai tribal elders embrace the tradition and want their daughters circumcised.

“This practice must be eliminated as it denies women the right to enjoy life and make appropriate decisions on their lives,” said Jamboi Barmayegu, an official from the NGO, the Ujamaa Community Resource Team.

FGM - the cutting or total removal of the clitoris and other vaginal tissue - is often done in Tanzania using unclean knives or blades. Side effects of FGM include excruciating pain, urinary tract infections and even death.

UNICEF estimates more than 125 million girls and women have undergone genital mutilation in 29 countries across Africa and the Middle East.

In Tanzania, the practice seems to be on the decline, with the prevalence rate having dropped from 18 percent in 1996 to 15 percent in 2005, according to the Demographic and Health Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health.

However, the survey indicated that most women were still being cut in several regions, including two regions just south of Arusha - Manyara, where 81 percent of women have undergone some form of genital mutilation, followed by Dodoma, where approximately 68 percent of women have undergone the procedure.

TOUGHER LAWS NEEDED

Women’s rights activists say the Tanzania government must enact tougher laws to deter FGM, which they see as a violation of human rights.

The country’s Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act of 1998 prohibits FGM from being performed on girls younger than 18, but it does not provide any protection for women once they pass that threshold age.

Critics say enforcement of this legislation is difficult due to insufficient knowledge of the law among the people, as well as victims’ reluctance to testify against community members for fear of reprisal from those who practice it.

“Since it is technically difficult for the law enforcers to reach remote areas, most communities still embrace the practice,” said Helen-Kijo Bisimba, an activist from the Dar es Salaam-based Legal and Human Rights Centre.

TIME TO FIGHT TRADITION

Women rights groups say the best way to stop FGM is by engaging those who have abandoned the practice to educate society about its risks - including the family of girls like Sara Lukumai, a Maasai woman who narrowly escaped the procedure.

She was 16 when her mother told her it was time to face the knife as part of the Maasai tradition that prepares girls to be women.

“As I was coming from school one day, I saw a group of women gathered at our home singing and ululating. I realised it was my turn, but I strongly refused,” the woman, now 19, told Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Her father, Lengai Ole Lukumai - a Maasai herder in the village of Oldonyosambu, about 35km from Arusha - supported his daughter’s refusal because his six other daughters did not benefit from undergoing the procedure.

“I have had enough of it. I know it is a break in tradition, but I wanted to show how bad some of our customs are,” he said. “I am still a follower of my traditions, but I just don’t want any more cuts for my children because I have realised it brings more harm than good.”

His wife was not pleased because their daughter's rejection of the ritual was a disgrace to the family and would be seen as an act of cowardice, but she could not argue with her husband.

The girl, meanwhile, was ridiculed by friends who had been circumcised, but she saw it as a necessary act of defiance to tell villagers that it was high time to abandon outdated traditions.

In her impoverished community, many parents are unable to afford school fees and so marry their girls off at a young age. Uneducated and too young to fight back, many girls undergo FGM as the traditional precursor to marriage.

Grateful that her father supported her, Sara Lukumai sees education as the way to fight poverty and FGM.

“I want to study. It is through education that I can help my family get out of poverty,” said the girl, who is now in her second year at a secondary school in Arusha. “I want to be a teacher so that I can help fellow citizens to reject bad traditions.”

Heckton Chuwa, a journalist in Arusha, contributed to this report.

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