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Tanzanian women fight to stop genital mutilation and cycles of suffering

Girls in the rural areas of Tanzania are often trapped in a cycle that includes female genital mutilation, forced marriage and teen pregnancy. Women in the country are now fighting to free the next generation from the suffering and oppression.

Namayani Saruni was 10 years old when she was mutilated. A woman cut off her clitoris and labia with a razor blade. There was blood everywhere, and Saruni felt nothing but burning pain.

Today, 14 years later, she can remember everything that happened. She also recalls that she didn’t cry. "I was told I’m not allowed to cry. That if I cry, I bring shame on my family, I will not make friends, no man will marry me and my father will leave my mother.” So, Saruni didn’t cry, despite the pain. She held back her tears until she lost consciousness.

Saruni survived. But her painful journey was only beginning that day, because Saruni’s story is not only one of female genital mutilation, but one of a hard-to-interrupt cycle that predetermines the lives of many girls in Tanzania’s rural north. First, the girls are systematically robbed of their power over their own bodies, followed by their sexual self-determination and ultimately their freedom.

And it all begins with female genital cutting.

The practice is meant to turn girls into women - and thus into marriage material. For their fathers, the calculus is simple: The earlier their daughters get married, the sooner they get the "bride price.” But the earlier the girls become dependent on their husbands, the faster they also become mothers, closing the cycle as the next generation of girls is born into this system.

"As Old As My Father”

Only four weeks after Saruni genital mutilation, she already faced the next step. The wounds from the mutilation still hadn’t healed by the time her parents married her off. "I didn’t know the man,” she says, "when I saw him for the first time, I was shocked. He was as old as my father.”

Saruni’s husband didn’t care that she was only 10 years old or that the injuries from the mutilation were still fresh. "When he started with sexual intercourse, I had only been mutilated a month. It hurt so bad,” she remembers.

"Even after the wounds have healed, sexual intercourse remains very painful for circumcised girls. It’s like a rape,” says Tanzanian activist Mackrine Shao-Rumanyika, who has been advocating for the rights of women who are part of the Maasai people for years.

Female genital mutilation is not only painful - it can also be deadly. Sometimes girls bleed to death or die from infections or blood poisoning. This led to the banning of the practice under Tanzanian law over 20 years ago.

But tribes like the Maasai have found ways to circumvent the ban – by cutting the girls secretly during school holidays, or, as is currently the case, while education institutions are closed due to the coronavirus.

To break the cycle, Rumanyika believes you have to stop the practice of genital mutilation before it happens. She is seeking to explain the dangers and medical risks of cutting to the woman who carry out the practice through her NGO, the Health Integrated Multisectoral Development (HIMD). She gives them chicken and sheep in exchange for putting away the razor blades and abandoning the practice. That way, they can make a living without constantly having to worry about getting arrested. So far, she has convinced 169 women to stop.

But that came too late for Naishooki Laizer. Like her friend Saruni, Laizer is a child of the vicious cycle. Her uncles, she says, brought her pregnant mother to a medicine man in order to determine Laizer’s sex. When it was announced that it would be a girl, her uncles already began looking for a husband for her.

Laizer was sold before her birth, for eight cows. She was cut at the age of eight and handed over to her husband at age 10. He starved her, hit and raped her. Laizer endured the agony because she knew there was no way back.

Legal Efforts

"As human beings, our only luxury is to be able to choose who we want to be and to become that. This right is being taken away from the girls through marriage,” says lawyer Rebeca Gyumi.

Tanzania is one of the countries in the world with the most child marriages. Four out of every 10 girls are married before they become adults, a practice that has long been legal. Under the Tanzania Marriage Act, girls can be married from the age of 14, even though UNICEF describes child marriages as a "violation of human rights” and despite the fact that their negative consequences have been proven by countless studies. They show that child marriage results in a higher school dropout rate, more teenage pregnancies, a greater threat of drifting into poverty and of becoming victims of domestic violence.

Activists spent decades lobbying against the law in vain - at least until Gyumi came up with the idea of an unconventional petition arguing that the Marriage Act contradicts the right to equality enshrined in the constitution because the law allows only girls to be married as minors. Gyumi won the court case in 2016, as well as the proceedings before the High Court that were initiated by the Tanzanian government last year.

"This provides us with a legal framework for protecting the girls and for enforcing violations of the law,” says Gyumi. But she also knows that this is just the beginning.

Gyumi organizes discussion forums among villagers to win over support from men. To stop child marriages, however, she needs, above all else, to get the cycle out of the girls’ minds. The Msichana Initiative that she founded provides extracurricular clubs to schools and mentoring programs in areas with especially high rates of child marriage.

The girls jointly set goals for their school and careers to enable them to become independent of their husbands and families. They engage as activists pushing to change the laws, and they talk to girls of the same age about their rights and about contraception. The latter is especially important in regions with large numbers of child brides. United Nations statistics show that more than one out of every four girls in Tanzania between the ages of 15 and 19 is pregnant or has already given birth to a child.

When a child brings another child into the world, the danger of complications is considerably higher. Saruni was 12 years old when she became pregnant. The baby was too large for her delicate body. The scars from her circumcision kept Saruni’s birth canal from expanding, and the mother and child could only be saved through an emergency Cesarean section.

Secretive Contraception

In tribes like the Maasai, joint family planning with husbands is difficult. Having a large number of children represents wealth, even if each additional child worsens the family’s poverty. For activists like Rumanyika, the focus is on giving the women back some of the control they lost when they were circumcised as girls.

They should be able to decide for themselves when and if they want to have children - and whether they want to risk being expelled from school or even arrested, as police or politicians sometimes push for, if they get pregnant. A law on the books since 2002 allows state schools to expel pregnant girls from their establishments. Even President John Magufuli believes the girls carry most of the blame for their situation and that they need to be held responsible for their actions. In 2017, he promised his followers that for as long as he is president, no pregnant girl would return to school.

Rumanyika tries to explain to the women how they can make decisions independently from their husbands. If the men refuse to use condoms, there are other options: Hormone implants are long-term and safe for contraception, but men can feel them in the girls’ arms. Those who have some regular privacy choose the pill. Most women sneak into the hospital for monthly injections when they are not being watched.

Saruni is 24 now and the mother of three children. She hasn’t chosen this life. It was chosen for her. To prevent her daughter and other girls in the village from having to go through what she did, Saruni founded a self-help group for child brides and young mothers.

The women meet regularly between two mud huts, exchanging views on contraception, educating their daughters and planning investments. At each meeting, they put some money aside for a well they plan to build. They want to sell the water to pay for their children’s school fees and purchase their own livestock and a day-care center, thus buying themselves a bit of independence.

It’s a revolution, even if a quiet one. Between the women, their children play on a blue plastic tarp. They could turn out to be the first generation to grow up outside the cycle.

This article was published by Der Spiegel.


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