10 April 2014

female genital mutilation.

As a young woman of 14 or 15 years old, I had so many things to be excited about. I was in high school, preparing to apply to colleges and universities and figure out what my major would be. I was involved in clubs and activities at school, which kept me busy and occupied. I rarely had anything to seriously worry about, aside from the normal teenage drama.

In Tanzania, the concerns of a teenage girl are quite different and quite serious.

One of the main concerns, which has recently received loads of attention from international governments and nonprofit organizations, is female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision. Since we arrived in Tanzania, I've been shocked at the risks faced by FGM victims and the influence it has on much of the African continent. Read on for a brief outline of FGM's purpose, risks, effects on Tanzania, and what is being done to put an end to it.

Disclaimer: Let me underline just how brief this post will be. I am (happily) overwhelmed by the amount of research, statistics, and writing that exists out here on the world wide web about this issue. So, this post skims the surface of FGM on a very generic level. If you'd like to learn more, please put a question in the Comments Box below and I'd be happy to follow up.

Source: Emory University

What is FGM and why is is practiced? 

FGM is a non-medical procedure performed exclusively on girls, from ages as young as one year up until around 15. The aim of these procedures is to alter or remove parts of the female genital organs. (Don't worry, that's as graphic as it gets. My stomach turns just thinking about the details.) These procedures are usually performed within the community, by a respected elder who exclusively takes on this role.

There are a number of reasons why FGM is practiced. Some say it's a part of their culture. Others advocate that it's a necessary rite of passage for young girls, to transition them from childhood into adulthood.

Despite all of these arguments, the truth is that FGM is a practice that has been used to control women and to discriminate against them ever since its inception.

What are the risks?

Unsurprisingly, FGM bestows absolutely no benefits on its victims, only harm. Research shows that victims of FGM are more likely to contract multiple types of infections and cysts as well as experiences of infertility and advanced childbirth complications.

The long term consequences are horrible enough but don't forget that the procedure itself is incredibly painful and traumatic.

What does FGM look like in Tanzania? 

UNICEF's recent surveys estimate that about 15% of Tanzanian girls are victims of FGM annually. At first glance, this doesn't seem like a high percentage of the population, as many (mostly African) countries are in line or above Tanzania.

This still means that 8 million Tanzanian women and girls are FGM victims. Eight million too many.

Although the national average of FGM occurrence doesn't sound too bad, the reality is that the occurrence varies greatly by region, or district, of Tanzania, with some districts averaging in at a whopping 70% of the female population.

The map below outlines the approximate distribution and size of FGM-practicing ethnic groups in Tanzania:

Source: 28 Too Many

Allow me to demonstrate the vast differences in Tanzania by region: Musoma, where Michael and I currently live and take our language courses, is situated in the heart of the Mara region, where FGM is a serious issue. Studies show that 40% of female girls will be forced to be mutilated. On the other hand, Mwanza, where Michael and I will permanently live, is substantially safer for young girls, with only 1% of the population susceptible to FGM. These two places are only a few hours drive from one another yet have vastly different tribes, cultures, and societal norms.

Sadly, most of the perpetrators of FGM are people of faith. Christian believers overwhelmingly subject Tanzanian girls to this horrible practice (59%) while about 20% of FGM procedures are done within Muslim families.

What can be done? 

With such a horribly depressing post, I am happy to report that so much advocacy, research, and awareness is being done right this very moment on FGM all over the world. Big names like the World Health Organization and UNICEF are promoting a complete end to FGM. (The UN is highlighting an end to FGM - #3 of its Millennium Development Goals - below.) The prevalence of FGM is decreasing, but very slowly.

Source: United Nations Millennium Development Goals

There are a number of ways to fight FGM, with varying degrees of success and acceptance. The most accepted campaigns are aimed at elders in the community, those who support and often carry out FGM. One effective method has been to find alternative sources of income for those who make their living off of FGM. And of course, the use of media never hurts, as more Tanzanians have access to information through the televisions, telephones, and computers. Although education and empowerment of young girls is incredibly important, the power structures are such that they cannot control their fate alone, even armed with education.

So we move forward knowing that a ton of work is still needed in this arena but thousands of people all over the world are working toward its end. It takes a village, right?

For those who want to read more about this practice and how to help put a stop to it, the following organizations are doing amazing and necessary work in the fight against FGM:

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