Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action
The fact that female genital mutilation (FGM) has been illegal inTanzania since as far back as 1998 means little to the estimated 5000 girls in Tarime District in the Mara Region of the country who have been mutilated in the last two years. Many are as young as eight years old.
FGM has its roots in gender inequality – in a belief that girls’ bodies belong not to themselves but to men, their families and the wider community. Commonly the practice is perceived to be intimately connected with controlling women’s sexual desire and protecting family honour – safeguarding virginity before marriage and preserving chastity in marriage. In the words of a traditional leader in Tarime: ‘mutilation is a means [by] which men can control their wives because of the belief that only one man should cater to the needs of his many wives’.
Despite being an offense under criminal law, traditional leaders have upheld the practice, often relying on it as a major source of income (those who do the cutting can earn up to 50,000 Tanzanian shillings for each girl cut – about £20). Police and courts have largely turned a blind eye due to limited resources and a reluctance to delve into ‘cultural practices’. International NGOs also lack the legitimacy that is so crucial when speaking out against the cultural norms and practices under which women and girls live their lives.
But at last there has been a major breakthrough. In Tarime District, those who do have the legitimacy to speak out – the traditional leaders – have taken the unprecedented step of backing anti-FGM initiatives spearheaded by One World Action’s partner, the Children’s Dignity Forum (CDF). The catalyst for change was an innovative peer-to-peer exchange organised by OWA together with our two partners, Women for Change in Zambia and the Children’s Dignity Forum in Tanzania. The exchange brought together traditional leaders from Tarime with traditional leaders in Zambia who have been trained under Women for Change’s Gender and Human Rights Programme.
In Zambia, the work with traditional leaders has been truly groundbreaking, putting an end to deep-rooted practices which have undermined women’s rights and compromised the health and well-being of communities for decades. For example, many Chiefs have taken the bold step of outlawing cultural practices such as sexual cleansing, early marriage and wife inheritance, and introducing financial penalties for those who ignore such prohibitions. By bringing these leaders to Tanzania to share their experiences, Tanzanian traditional leaders were able to hear directly from their Zambian peers about human rights, and about the violations they are committing by condoning FGM. It was also a chance to talk about alternatives to the practice.
Already Tarime traditional elders have formed a network to combat FGM in the area. With such momentum, the elimination of FGM in the Kurya tribe is a goal within reach. This is an achievement which would literally transform the lives of thousands of girls, and be an exciting step towards protecting the right of all people to make choices about their own bodies and sexuality. Clearly, culture is dynamic and can be changed, but change requires bringing the gatekeepers of culture on board, so that traditional authority is used in a powerful and positive way to safeguard women’s and girls’ fundamental rights and freedoms.