Books over Razor Blades:Ending FGM in North Mara, Tanzania

Girls in Mara region at a safe house. ATFGM protects young women in Mara from FGM by setting up shelters and safe houses with support and funding from the Foundation for Civil Society (FCS),

Muya Magesa*, 62, sells milk and eggs in Nyabitocho village, right above the Serengeti in North Mara, Tanzania. She has the spritely walk and booming laughter of a youthful woman, but speaks with the self-assured straightforwardness of an elder. Muya’s market runs as a milkmaid are a far cry from her days as a traditional circumciser, known as a ngariba, who put young women under the razor during customary Kurya initiation rites.

While female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal in Tanzania, the practice is still rife in regions like Mara with thousands of girls at risk of circumcision every year. FGM is a human rights violation. It causes devastating damage to girls’ physical and psychological health, and can often result in death. With a particularly high incidence among traditionalist Kuryas, it persists as a coming-of-age rite, marking girls’ transition into adulthood. For a girl and her family, refusal to be cut runs the real risk of social exclusion and victimization.

Ngaribas, like Muya once was, serve as the ultimate enforcers of this brutal social code.

Muya says, “Before I encountered the Association for Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (ATFGM), I was a famous circumciser. I was known for handling the stubborn girls – those who would try to run away from the cut. It was my livelihood and a cultural role I held dearly. If you told me that one day I would see FGM as violence, I would laugh at you.”

With support and funding from the Foundation for Civil Society (FCS), ATFGM protects young women in Mara from FGM by setting up shelters and safe houses. They also conduct educational outreach to ngaribas on alternative rites of passage. Since 2017, FCS has provided multimillion shilling grant funding to ATFGM and additional programmatic support for the association’s staff. In the latest grant from FCS to ATFGM, they received 42 Million Tanzanian Shillings. This allowed them to protect over 500 at-risk girls between May 2020 to March 2021.

Beyond establishing safe houses, the association works in promoting alternative rites of passage among FGM-practicing communities. As part of the alternative rites of passage, girls learn about their culture, rights, as well as sexual and reproductive health, alongside their regular studies. With the social and familial exclusion that often results from refusing the cut, ATFGM workers also provide psychosocial support to the rescued girls and cooperating parents.

The program ends in a communal graduation session with parents, government representatives, and — importantly — former ngaribas like Muya. The ex-cutters are themselves educated on human rights, how FGM violates them, and trained on entrepreneurship, small-to-medium scale agribusiness, and alternative income pathways. With FCS grant funding, ATFGM has sent 40 former circumcisers to vocational training schools. This enables them to replace the income they would receive from their former work as traditional circumcisers – with rates as high as TZS 15,000/= per circumcision. This holistic approach enables Muya and other ex-cutters to stand in the forefront of the fight against FGM. Muya has become a businesswoman and an educator – an unlikely yet formidable ally in the fight against this human rights violation.

Our initiation rites prepared our young people to become productive and wise members of adult society. They have been a pillar of our identity as Kurya people. But I now see that we can teach our girls the ways of our society without subjecting them to the cruelty of the cut. We can educate them without violence. FGM is cruel,” says Muya.

ATFGM acknowledges FCS grant and support as foundational to their work in ending FGM. The Association’s Project Manager, Mr. Valerian Mgani, says:

FCS is a source of strength for us. We have worked with them for many years in this fight. Their grant funding and programmatic support are a pillar to our must-win war to end FGM in Mara. Battle after battle, year after year, FCS support has been a key that unlocks our victories. The goal is to get to zero cases of FGM in Tanzania by 2030. Because of partners like FCS, we are getting there.”

Things are getting better. The United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency (UNFPA) estimates one in ten Tanzanian girls has undergone FGM. In Mara, this figure is as high as one in every three girls. This represents a marked decline in FGM over the past decade (from 18% to 10% prevalence). However, the Government of Tanzania, the United Nations, and on-ground teams like ATFGM, supported by FCS, have committed to bringing this number down to zero cases of FGM by 2030.

And now, with ex-circumcisers like Muya transforming their outlook and guiding others, hope is turning into real change. The battle rages on, but the end is nigh!

I now see myself as a new kind of educator and I take this role seriously. While I no longer circumcise the girls, I still meet them and advise them. I tell them stories and teach them our values,” says Muya.

She adds: “I don’t use razor blades – my words are powerful enough to shape their lives. In fact, I now tell them the book is more important than the razor blade to succeed in today’s world.”