What lessons can we learn from FGM practice in Tanzania?


18 December 2012

Blog from our Research Co-ordinator, recently back from Tanzania.

Following from our previous blog about FGM in Tanzania, we continue with a blog from Singida and Dodoma in Central Tanzania by our Research Co-ordinator, who recently undertook a research project in the country for Tearfund.

In Central Tanzania, we found a very different picture to Mara Region in North West Tanzania (see last blog ).   In Singida, the law which was passed in
1998 outlawing FGM on girls under the age of 18 seems to have had a much
greater impact on behaviour.  The predominant tribe in Singida that practices FGM is the Nyaturu.  Although the Tanzania Demographic Health Survey 2010 reports that the prevalence of FGM within the Region is 51%, the communities we visited reported that the rate had declined to very low rates, with estimates ranging from 1% to 30%. FGM was practised irrespective of religion (some of the communities we visited were mainly Christian, others mixed Christian and Muslim).

Historically, the cutting of both boys and girls happened every June and July.  This coincided with the harvest, so food for the celebrations would be plentiful.  It is also cooler at this time of year and it was believed that this would lessen the bleeding and aid healing.  It was school holidays and the girls would be off school, although they would resume school afterwards.  There would be much celebration, eating and drinking.  The boys and girls would be
cut on the same day having received training in a special place on life skills, for example how to care for their family and community.  This would take place in a special camp where they would have white soil smeared on their bodies, with the soil being changed every day.  They would sing special uplifting and encouraging songs that would remind them they are no longer children.  The boys would receive gifts such as a cow.  Both the reasons behind practising FGM and the age at which it takes places have changed due to the implementation of the law.

Historically, a range of reasons were reported including tradition, marriage, sign of transition from childhood to adulthood, to gain the respect of the community, to avoid stigmatisation, and peer and parental pressure.  In one community, a participant explained that if you were not cut you would be despised by your family and that you would be treated as a child no matter how old you were. Curiously, FGM has also carried out because of a belief in “lawalawa” which reportedly arose in the 1970s.  Lawalawa was believed to be a disease affecting the (male and female)genitalia that could only be cured by appeasing the spirits of the ancestors by performing FGM.  It is in fact a bacterial infection that can be easily treated with conventional medicine.  This belief led the babies being subjected to FGM.

The communities we visited reported that FGM is currently performed on babies, often newborns, amid great secrecy though at a lower rate than before.  Types 1 and II were both reported both historically and currently.  The reduction in the prevalence and the change in the age at which it is practised were largely attributed to the government announcements outlawing the practice – indeed, the government has been much more active in this region with FGM having been a special agenda item at local government meetings and prosecutions having been brought, although such action seems to have become less prominent.   Community-based programmes run by local NGO AFNET (the Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Network of Tanzania) and sensitisation by the church have also been contributing factors in reducing the rate of FGM.  The reasons for the continuance were stated to be tradition, parental pressure (particularly from mothers and grandmothers, with the husbands sometimes being unaware that they intend to cut the baby before it is too late), with a continued belief that FGM needs to be carried out to cure lawalawa.

It was very interesting to see the impact the law has had on the practice of FGM in Singida.  Our research highlighted the difficulties in assessing the situation regarding FGM in communities where the practice is illegal and performed secretly, with some communities seemingly reluctant to disclose information.  The real prevalence figure may well be much higher than those estimated and disclosed by the participants in the research.

Although we can take heart from the fact that the rate appears to have dropped,  participants told us the communities still need to be reminded about the effects FGM, particularly those communities in more remote villages.  It may well be that FGM will eventually die out in Singida over time without further intervention once a certain “tipping point” is reached.  However, children are dying in the meantime and it seems a shame not to continue to build on the work that the government, NGOs and the church has already done to bring an end to FGM.   Only few days after leaving Singida, we read in the press the tragic story of a 4 month-old baby who had died in Singida as a result of being cut ostensibly to cure lawalawa, whereas in fact the baby had diarrhoea..

We recently attended the Trust Women Conference and 28 Too Many is pleased to be cited in the Actions Plans as collecting data/research/stories relating FGM, so please send us details of any research, articles or contacts concerning the eradication of FGM.