dc-fgmSystemic change is urgently needed when 130 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) according to the World Health Organization.  In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually (WHO, 2008).

Girls are usually not given a choice whether to engage in this practice; sometimes even being taken against their will or the wishes of their parents.  It is not uncommon for these young girls to end up requiring emergency medical treatment, if it is available.

However, in 2008, in the rural community of Masanga in the far north of Tanzania, the Daughters of Charity mobilized mothers and concerned community citizens to take a stand against mandatory imposing of FGM on young girls.

Since FGM is a highly sensitive issue often embedded in traditional cultures, opposition to this harmful practice is sometimes restrained.

In December 2008 the Daughters and collaborators organized and implemented a camp that literally provided a safe haven for girls who chose not to be forced to participate in this brutal practice. Inside St. Catherine’s School, the camp became home and security for 53 young girls who dealt with a mixture of pride, conviction and fear during the several weeks of cutting ceremonies.  Due to threats, extra security was added and the parents insisted that the girls not be allowed to be taken by anyone, even family members.  One Daughter marveled and explained, “actually it was very impressive to see the confidence that the parents and the girls had in us.”

Research confirms that if a community that currently engages in FGM makes a decision to abandon this practice, it can be eliminated fairly quickly.  This is the hope of the families of young girls and community leaders who have banded together with the Daughters in Tanzania to fight for the rights of the girls.  Facilitating such a dynamic change has required bold and courageous action on the part of the girls, their families, and the program supporters.

(The following is the understated yet moving report from the Daughters of Charity International Project Services from which the above was abstracted. It can be downloaded as a Word document dcs-tanzania-fgm. There is also some video footage of the ceremonies leading up to the “cutting” which can be made available upon request by using the “Contact Us” link on FAMVIN.ORG. IPS also has a FaceBook page.)

Daughters in Tanzania empower young girls to “Say NO to FGM!”

A project facilitated by Daughters of Charity International Project Services

“Even though cultural practices may appear senseless or destructive from the standpoint of others, they have meaning and fulfill a function for those who practice them. However, culture is not static; it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming. People will change their behavior when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture.”

– Female Genital Mutilation, A joint WHO/UNICEF/UNFPA statement, World Health

Organization, Geneva, 1997.

According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated that 130 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually (WHO, 2008).

FGM, the non-therapeutic practice of injury or removal of female external genitalia or organs, is a long-standing practice in many cultures.  Generally FGM is conducted by non-medical, traditional practitioners known as “cutters,” without benefit of anesthesia or medical interventions.   Traumatic results include horrific pain and shock, and often severe blood loss, ulceration and injury to tissues.  Sometimes the health risks result in serious consequences such as septic infections, infertility or obstructed labor, or are even life-threatening.  Beyond atrocious medical ramifications, FGM is a violation of the rights of women and girls, and often deemed to be gender discrimination.

Ellen Gruenbaum, in her 2001 book, The Female Circumcision Controversy, states that “Female circumcision is practiced by people of many ethnicities and various religious backgrounds, including Muslims, Christians and Jews, as well as followers of traditional African religions.  For some it is a rite of passage.  For others it is not.  Some consider it aesthetically pleasing.  For others, it is mostly related to morality or sexuality.”

Reports cite that ethnicity and little or no level of education often correlate with increased incidence of FGM practices.  And in some instances, such as the case in Tanzania, rural regions do appear to have a higher incidence of FGM.

In Masanga, Tanzania, where the Daughters of Charity work, the mothers of the Kuria tribe, the largest tribe in the Mara region, explain the ceremony of Female Genital Mutilation, known as Tohara:

One of the five clans, the Wairegi, is traditionally responsible for initiating the cutting.  With the sacrifice of a white lamb, the elders assure that the signs are in order for the ceremony to begin.   Or, if they feel that others are in opposition, it is a black lamb.  Generally during the month of December, a grassy area is prepared with fetishes and special woods to receive the young girls.  Each day the Ngariba (the traditional cutter) can cut up to 400 girls.  In a massive ceremony, the girls are brought to the cutter by boys donned in crowns of ostrich feathers and carrying lances, and accompanied by highly decorated women.

Waiting in one of several lines until it is their turn, the girls stand exposed and nearly naked, wearing only a small hat and a short blouse.  The price for cutting is fixed by the elders, and paid in full.  During the cutting, the girls are told not to cry or move, even if it is very painful.  Her sponsor closes the girl’s eyes and sits on her chest.  Two others hold her legs.  If the young girl cries, it is a big shame upon her and her parents.  If she does not cry, then she has honored her family and will certainly make a good wife.

After cutting, the elders allow the girls to leave; they bless them and each family takes their girl down the road back to their home, accompanied by people singing.  The girl must walk home on her own, where she will lie down on an animal skin.  However, by this time, she has usually lost a great deal of blood.  The family celebrates with singing, dancing and special cooking preparations.  The girl receives ugali and beans as her first food.

At five o’clock in the evening, the women invite the girl to the gala (a place for storing food).  She is now suffering greatly, but must walk to the gala, where they take hot water and wash her wounds.  The women remove a lot of blood which has formed clots, and the girl cries because the process it so very painful.  Now those around the girl can cry as well.

Accompanied by an assigned younger girl, the newly circumcised girl must walk around for four days, to show people that she is now healed.  After staying in the house for three weeks, the elders organize a dance where the girls will attend to show the men that they are now ready to be married.

Girls are usually not given a choice whether to engage in this practice; sometimes even being taken against their will or the wishes of their parents.  It is not uncommon for these young girls to end up requiring emergency medical treatment, if it is available.

Since FGM is a highly sensitive issue often embedded in traditional cultures, opposition to this harmful practice is sometimes restrained.  However, in 2008, in the rural community of Masanga in the far north of Tanzania, the Daughters of Charity mobilized mothers and concerned community citizens to take a stand against mandatory imposing of FGM on young girls.

Research confirms that if a community that currently engages in FGM makes a decision to abandon this practice, it can be eliminated fairly quickly.  This is the hope of the families of young girls and community leaders who have banded together with the Daughters in Tanzania to fight for the rights of the girls.  Facilitating such a dynamic change has required bold and courageous action on the part of the girls, their families, and the program supporters.  In December of 2008, the Daughters and collaborators organized and implemented a camp that literally provided a safe haven for girls who chose not to be forced to participate in this brutal practice. Inside St. Catherine’s School, the camp became home and security for 53 young girls who dealt with a mixture of pride, conviction and fear during the several weeks of cutting ceremonies.  Due to threats, extra security was added and the parents insisted that the girls not be allowed to be taken by anyone, even family members.  One Daughter marveled and explained, “actually it was very impressive to see the confidence that the parents and the girls had in us.”

Even in light of serious opposition, the Sisters and supporters mounted a campaign to raise awareness among community members regarding the harmful consequences of FGM, and offered an alternative.  Weeks before graduation day from the camp program, invitations to the ceremony were sent to the elders and tribal leaders, the bishop, local pastors, priests and sisters, police, journalists, “cutters” and others involved with the FGM practice, as well as an open invitation to the general public.

On Graduation Day, each girl formally read her desire and promise to never accept FGM, and was given a T-shirt with these words printed in Kiswahili: “God saw that all creation was good: Say NO to FGM!”  In a processional, every girl carried a candle as a sign of her new life and a beacon of hope for others.  As mass ended, the parents lit their daughters’ candles and blessed them, symbolizing their solidarity and the historic and systemic changes that were radiating throughout the community.

A ceremony transpired after Mass with songs and dances by the young girls, a presentation for guests, and the elders responded with encouragement and support for the girls and their families.  They asked the committee to continue their work of education and awareness.  Each girl was received by the elders and given an official place in “liga”, which is the equivalent to what the rite of circumcision does for girls in the Kuria tribe.  The highest authorities in the community declared that no one could speak badly or endanger these girls because they had chosen not to be cut.

Since that time, one girl from the camp has been forcibly taken and cut.  However, the committee pursued justice, and the responsible party has been imprisoned.  Today, working together with those who were willing to stand against FGM, the Daughters are providing a holistic and community-based program that includes comprehensive education and awareness, and plans for another camp for the young girls during the next  “ceremonial cutting timeframe” that will offer protection, education, and a Christian alternative right of passage. Funds to support this program were facilitated through Daughters of Charity International Project Services (DCIPS), and DCIPS plans to assist the Daughters in securing additional funds to continue this life-changing program. The girls are realizing increased self esteem and empowerment, and their inherent rights, including over their own bodies.

Daughters of Charity St. Catherine Laboure School

Tanzania Camp for Girls: Nov. – Dec. 2008

Individuals and organizations interested in becoming supportive partners for this courageous program of change and empowerment, or interested in learning about other projects, can contact Sr. Felicia Mazzola, Director of Daughters of Charity International Project Services at:  22255 Greenfield Road, Suite 232, Southfield, MI  48075-3734

Ph: 248-849-4914                    e-mail: srfmazzo@doc-ecp.org website: www.daughtersips.org

dc-fgm-celebration

Top: The elders receiving the girls and declaring their right of passage without the traditional practice of FGM.

Bottom: Some of the young girls who participated in the camp proudly wearing their t-shirts and celebrating on graduation day.



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