COVID-19 exposed girls in Tanzania to FGM

COVID-19 exposed girls in Tanzania to FGM

Date: July 16, 2020
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By Anne Robi,

Dar es Salaam, 22 June: When Agnes (Not her real Name) heard of the school closure amid the outbreak of COVID 19, she felt uneasy going home, as it was a place she risked being involved in the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

“I never wanted to go because I knew I risked being cut. For several times my parents wanted me to undergo the FGM cut,” she says.

A form three student from boarding school in Mwanza region was cut two-weeks after she arrived from school following the government announcement for COVID 19 school closure.

“When I arrived home, I was received well and took time studying at home but after a week, I started seeing some changes with lots of visit an FGM cutter at my home and a week after I was cut early in the morning,” she says.

Being in school was secure to Agnes as her parents never had a chance to let her undergo FGM cutting. The innocent girl now grieving with scars developed by the harmful practice is among hundreds of girls who have been exposed to FGM after being sent home following COVID 19 crisis.

Efforts to reach her parents did not bear fruits. A neighbor who preferred anonymity confirmed having witnessed Agnes exposed to the FGM cut.

“It is true, the girl has been circumcised and she is not the only one, there are many others who have undergone FGM cutting during the coronavirus break from school,” she says that Agnes and other FGM victims in the Tarime are likely to drop out of school as most the girls are married off after being circumcised.

Reports indicate that many girls are forced to undergo FGM by their parents in the hopes of securing a higher dowry as girls uncut are believed to be more promiscuous. Others are forced by their family in the name of ‘tradition’, an act without which she would be shunned in her village.

In an interview with the this reporter over the phone, an anti-FGM crusader and the Director of Safe House Organization from Serengeti District in Mara Region Robi Samuel said 10 out of 80 girls who fled from their homes, escaping the FGM threats had been brutally cut.

“We received 80 girls who fled their homes during the COVID 19 school closure and 10 of them had been cut,” said Samuel adding that 80 girls including the 10 FGM victims are preserved at Hope Mgumu Nyumba Salama Mgumu Safe House).

Her organization is unable to reach out to other girls who are at risk of being cut and those already grieving the FGM ordeal.

“There are many girls out there being exposed to FGM and this is because we are unable get into their reach, the few we reach is because of the tips we get from community members and police on gender desks,” she said.

According to the United Nations Sexual and Reproductive Health Agency UNFPA), Hope for Girls Safe House in Serengeti and Mgumu were unable to reach an additional 60 girls who had already been cut by the time support arrived.

“Valerian Mgani, Association for the Termination of FGM, also in Mara Region, tells a similar story – 27 girls have been cut since March, something Valerian says he has never seen before,” says the UNFPA report published 11 June 2020.

According to the UNFPA and United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), due to the COVID 19, pandemic, meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including the elimination of female genital mutilation by 2030, will be disrupted, and an estimated two million additional cases of female genital mutilation will need to be averted.

The two organizations call for governments to ensure access to prevention, protection and care services, including psychosocial support, and adapting community-based surveillance systems for girls and women at risk of and affected by female genital mutilation, especially in hard-to-reach areas.

An investigation conducted by this reporter in Kitunda and Kivule Wards in Ilala District Dar es Salaam Region, revealed that many girls in Mara were subjected to the practice while others managed to escape. But efforts to acquire official data hit snag. Between November and December each year marks the traditional cutting season in Mara Region where thousands of girls are subjected to FGM.

Marwa Mwita at Kitunda Ward in Dar es Salaam says holidays and school closure periods always provide chances to parents and ritual elders to subject girls into FGM cutting. “There is need for the survivors to speak out how they are affected by the genital cut…that is when the communities practicing FGM will stop it, otherwise they will keep dying silently,” he adds.

“COVID 19 period was a best time for people here to conduct FGM and in fact they did it without fear as they knew girls had nowhere to run to considering the fear of the coronavirus,” says Mwita.

According to the activist, many of the parents in Serengeti and other Districts in Mara region took the advantage of the COVID 19 schools closure forcing girls to undergo the FGM brutal practice.

“Parents, traditional ritual elders and the local leaders collaborate in the conducting the FGM ceremonies, brutally forcing and cutting school girls in the dark as they stay home to mitigate spread of coronavirus,” says Samuel.

Samuel calls on the government to intervene by setting up strict policy that will ensure local leaders are held responsible in the effort to protect girls from harmful practices. The government committed to deliver on global goal of zero gender-based violence (GBV) and harmful practices – including FGM – by 2030.

According to reports, Mara region has the highest rate of spousal violence in the country with over 50 per cent of adolescent girls (15 to 19 years)  married by the age of 18 and 32 per cent of women and girls (15 to 49 years) have undergone FGM.

She said the girls who have been rescued and preserved including those who have undergone the FGM cut at the Safe House are provided with all the essential needs as various arrangements are underway to ensure justice prevail to the girls.

“The girls are here with us we make various arrangements to ensure justice is done to them. We provide all the essential needs including health services especially the 10 girls who had their genital parts removed,” she noted.

Some of the arrangements underway to ensure justice to the girls are legal procedures to summon the parents of the girls who have been cut and the FGM cutter FGM perpetrators).

“Some of the parents involved in the harmful FGM practices have been arrested and we are waiting for them to be arraigned in court on next Monday,” says Samuel noting that among those arrested include the one FGM cutter.

As the schools are set to be opened on 29 June girls who fled will be taken back home after reconciliation with their parents, police gender desks in the area.

“We are set to start procedures to get the girls back to their homes so that they can continue with learning,  but the process will ensure the parents agree to protect the girls from FGM and this will be done by signing an agreement,” she said.

Globally, the World Bank estimates that 1.6 billion children were locked out of education by Covid-19. NGOs warn that millions of the world’s most vulnerable children may never return to the classroom, and say that after decades fighting for girls’ education the pandemic could cause gender equality in education to be set back decades.

In Tanzania, girls sent home from boarding schools where they were being protected from FGM have already been cut.

Recent UN data estimates that 3.9 million girls were subjected to FGM globally in 2015. The report says that if FGM continues to be practiced at current levels, this figure is projected to rise to 4.6 million by 2030. In Tanzania, by 2015, 10 per cent of women age 15 – 49 had undergone FGM according to the Tanzania Demographic Survey 2016.

Genital Mutilation is a practice that violates children’s and women’s rights and has the potential to cause serious medical, emotional, psychological and social complications. FGM is often embedded into social norms, especially patriarchal systems, and used to control women’s sexual and reproductive health.

The Tanzania National Plan of Action to End Violence against Women and Children (NPAVAWC 2017 – 2022) calls for awareness raising on social norms that perpetuate gender based violence including FGM, organizations involved in building a movement of women, men and institutions to take public actions to prevent women and girls from experiencing violence including FGM.

The plan also points on the need to the generation of evidence-based data on norms and values that will be used to inform policy and priority-setting in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment, set up programs that strengthen the capacity of institutions the judiciary to enable effective fast-track response to FGM.

Anne Robi is a journalist in Tanzania. This story is part of the Gender Links News Service Gender and COVID-19 news series

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