23 December 2013

What changes are taking place in FGM in Tanzania?

Guest blog by a 28 Too Many researcher.

During August and September 2013 Gosbert Lwentaro, a researcher based in Dar es Salaam undertook research on FGM in Tanzania for 28 Too Many. His research included meetings and community group discussions in Arusha and Moshi and in this blog he shares some of the findings which show how FGM is changing in Tanzania. Gosbert’s research contributed to 28 Too Many’s country profile of FGM in Tanzania which was published on 10th December 2013. 

I visited Arusha and Moshi during August 2013 to research FGM in the Maasai and Chagga. One of the traditional Maasai cutting seasons (June) had just passed but community members told me that they had not witnessed any FGM ceremonies as had been the custom for many years when Maasai girls are cut. During discussion with research participants at Longido we investigated what this change means. Had parents decided not to get their daughters cut or was FGM still continuing but in a different way?

How and why is FGM changing in Arusha?

The following testimony explains what is happening in this area. “Traditionally, FGM was done to "sangito" (Maasai girls aged between 12 to 20 years) during traditional cutting seasons, normally in June or December. Nowadays this timing is no longer kept as there is a shift from cutting sangito to cutting infants (newly born baby girls from 7 days old).  The cutting is done indoors and is kept very confidential”.  

Even though there are laws against FGM, the research participants continued, “The Maasai elderly women who do the cutting, traditionally known as "engamuratani", pressure for FGM by telling poisonous words to parents and making threats when parents prove reluctant to cut infant girls.” The engamuratani are highly respected and trusted by the Maasai community and they play a significant role in continuing FGM. 

When we asked why this change was happening, we were told that both the shift away from a traditional cutting season and cutting infants rather than adolescent girls were due to the anti-FGM laws that are now in place. This was also asserted in a focus group discussion with Maasai elders at Kimokouwa village, who stated that although the government has enacted anti-FGM laws the Maasai community does not obey that law. Not having public ceremonies or a prescribed cutting season and cutting infant girls makes it much harder for the authorities to prevent FGM or to identify and prosecute those responsible when cutting takes place. Research participants reported that some of the Maasai people had been apprehended for FGM but in most cases people they were acquitted. It was also noted that Maasai are unwilling to report others for the practice. As one respondent told us, “The challenge is that when the father is arrested the family is defenseless and suffers from lack of support. So many incidents of cutting infant girls are not reported”.

In an interesting exchange during our time in Arusha, we met a group of primary school pupils. Our Maasai hosts explained that traditionally, after they have been cut Maasai cut girls bow before their elders during any exchange of greetings. As we met this group, the girls (including some who looked very young) bow before us and we respond by touching them on the heads one by one as is the custom. We then asked them how old are you? One said four, the other one said “Three. No, wait! Five.” She then became shy and ran back to her friends. Sadly it is likely that the little girls were already cut, probably before they were three years old.

Are there any specific programs to end FGM in Maasai land?  

The research participants did not mention any specific program run by the government to address FGM. They did mention an NGO called TEMBO supported by Mary Laiza which addresses FGM and has an education program, targeting primary and secondary schools in Longido and Kimokouwa. There are also media campaigns to address FGM and Christian churches have run seminars, though only occasionally.

What is happening on FGM for the Chagga people in Moshi?

Following our visit to Arusha we visited Moshi and ran discussion groups with the Chagga from Huru, Hai and Moshi districts. During the discussions, the word “wakweku” was regularly heard. These are Chagga elderly women who do the cutting of Chagga girls and are generally referred to as grandmothers and guardians to women in the Chagga community. Wakweku are currently not publicly cutting Chagga girls and this is thought to be because of the ant-FGM laws. However research participants confirmed that although not done in public, FGM is still taking place. A group of Chagga men commented, “Nowadays in many parts of Moshi FGM is done at only 8 days of birth to infant girls. Sometimes, a father to a baby girl is not consulted and it is done when babies are extremely young and under a mother’s care.”

Research participants told us that the type and name given to FGM was changing in some communities, particularly in the majority Muslim communities in Huru and Narumbu. The traditional name for the cutting of Chagga girls is "dinwa" and this has changed to "suna", which we were told means “very small”. Suna seems to be derived from the Arabic “sunnah” which means “the way” or “tradition” but these people appear to have given it a specific local meaning with regard to FGM. This new practice involves using handkerchief with some salt to remove a very small part of the clitoris. Although it is still FGM and illegal, worryingly many wrongly believe that suna is not harmful and we were told by some, “When salt is applied to a snail, it melts into water and so applying it to clitoris which also is wet and has some kind of mucus; it is like melting a very small part and no effect.”

A group of Chagga girls in another discussion group gave an interesting description regarding the current changes in the ceremonies when Chagga babies are cut. They said; “Traditionally, when girls were cut goats were slaughtered but nowadays they cut a small part of a goat’s ear and trap the drops of blood which they smear on the face of a cut baby with aim to fulfil the tradition and hence escape misfortunes in the family.” Again this keeps FGM low profile and less likely to be detected by law enforcement agencies.

Chagga women in focus group discussions confirmed another similar change and said that traditionally when Chagga girls were cut, the Chagga women organise themselves in circle, holding hands together. The cut girl was placed in the middle sitting on BOKIRI (a traditional stone). Chagga women sang songs and dance to a traditional dance called MBASA and traditional foods were eaten. These elements are not seen when baby girls are undergoing suna type FGM. 

Are there any specific anti-FGM programs in Moshi? 

The research respondents pointed out some international NGOs like UNICEF which had a special program on FGM targeting areas of Machame and Narumu. They also mentioned an NGO called Africa Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) provided seminars targeting the community. The other mentioned NGOs were AFNET and MKOMBOZI. They were aware of some media campaigns to address FGM and that Christian churches ran seminars some years ago.  


The focus group discussions in with both the Maasai and the Chagga indicate that whilst people are aware of the anti-FGM law and in many cases the harmful effects of FGM, the practice continues in their communities. With deep rooted beliefs that FGM is necessary for a girl to be socially accepted and considered for marriage, there is resistance to the law and parents are often put under pressure to have their daughters cut. As people have become aware of the laws against FGM, the practice appears to be changing so that it is easier to conceal. In addition the focus group discussions highlight a lack of enforcement of the anti-FGM laws. There is little done to check if girls have been cut and when communities are unwilling to report FGM people feel safe to continue to practice. 

On the positive side, research participants indicated that attitudes on FGM were changing. People were aware of anti-FGM initiatives, education programmes seem to be effective and it was noted that educated girls are increasingly resisting the practice. However there are still many challenges in eradicating FGM from Tanzania and the work of 28 Too Many and other against the practice remains of vital importance.

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