Tanzania fails to enforce law against female genital mutilation

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afrol News, 26 June - The Tanzanian government finds itself in the embarrassing situation of being the centre of focus in a new campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM). It has allowed mass FGM ceremonies to take place in the open despite international protest and the fact that the practice in theory is outlawed in Tanzania. 

- Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, is prohibited by law in Tanzania, the New York and Nairobi based feminist organisation Equality Now informs, but "the law is not effectively enforced and the practice of FGM continues openly." Equality Now therefore launches a protest action against the Tanzanian government.

In some parts of Tanzania, "mass circumcisions" are carried out in which thousands of girls are genitally mutilated at the same time, generally in December. Despite appeals from national and international organisations, the government of Tanzania has not acted to prevent these openly organised ceremonies, Equality New claims. 

In December 1996, according to reports, of the approximately 5,000 girls who were mutilated in one such ceremony, twenty girls died from medical complications. Referring to a similar ceremony to be held in December 1998, circumciser Maria Magwaiga was quoted in the Tanzanian 'Daily Mail' as saying, "It is too late for the Government to stop us circumcising women this season. They should have done that earlier." 

No legal action was taken against the illegal ceremony and against circumcisers such as Magwaiga, openly advertising her actions. However, later on, Parliament passed into law the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Bill, under which several persons were prosecuted for FGM, beginning in 1998. Some local government officials began combating the practice and have convicted and imprisoned a few persons who performed FGM on young girls. Still, mass circumcisions are performed in the open in several Tanzanian regions.

According to national health statistics, FGM affects 18 percent of the female population in Tanzania. It is performed at an early age within approximately 20 of the country's 130 main ethnic groups. Among some peoples FGM is compulsory, and among others, a woman who has not undergone the practice will not be able to marry. Societies were FGM is widely practiced include the Gogo people of Central Tanzania and the Maasai people in the Morogoro Region. 

Campaigns against FGM in Tanzania have been complicated by lack of local and central government and police backing and by the strong position of the practice locally. Although the theoretical ban on FGM should protect campaigners when spreading information locally, the total disinterest by local government has made them targets of attacks. Not being able to work locally, organisations now target the government, demanding it to take more effective action.

The lack of action is documented by several, known cases. According to the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre, local government in the Maasai dominated Morogoro Region have issued statements against FGM. "However, there is no government follow-up." The local church has intervened in some cases, but according to the local bishop, "even in cases where children have bled to death, no one is charged."

The Legal and Human Rights Centre especially investigated one case in Morogoro, in which three girls, 13 and 14 years old, ran away from their father in the summer of 1999, "in a desperate effort to save themselves from the practice of FGM." They fled to a local church for protection, and several pastors took them to the nearest police station, in Matombo. Rather than protecting the girls, the police however arrested one of the pastors for having unlawfully taken custody of minor children. The pastor was beaten severely and asked to confess that he had raped the girls. The girls then were taken to a hospital for an examination, where it was confirmed that they had not been raped. The police then turned them over to their father, who had them mutilated the next day and married within a month. 

When the Legal and Human Rights Centre interviewed one of the girls later on, she told how painful it had been to her that even the police and the courts could not help in their efforts to save themselves from genital mutilation. Subsequently, however, after the Centre submitted its report on the incident to the authorities, the young, now married girls changed their versions of events and said they did want to pursue the prosecution of their father. 

Another example of the difficulties in fighting FGM in Tanzania was made when a 78 years-old Gogo circumciser from the Dodoma Rural District, Nyangadule Kodi, recently defended FGM publicly. In an interview made by the African Church Information Service in May, Kodi explained that the procedure took fifteen or twenty minutes, "depending on the sharpness of the knife" and justified FGM as "a rite of passage for girls into womanhood, grooming and training of cultural values that maintain domestic stability within the community." 

Older women like Nyangadule Kodi reportedly maintain that they would not allow their male relatives to marry unmutilated women, because such women are "not polite and are over-sexed."

The Tanzanian Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act, a 1998 amendment to the Penal Code, specifically prohibits FGM. Section 169A(1) of the Act provides that anyone having custody, charge or care of a girl under 18 years of age who causes her to undergo FGM commits the offence of cruelty to children. The penalty for this offence is imprisonment up to fifteen years, a fine up to 300,000 shillings or both imprisonment and fine. The law also provides for the payment of compensation by the perpetrator to the victim of the offence.

Equality Now in a statement insists on the government to "take more effective action to end the practice of FGM in Tanzania - through education as well as enforcement of the law." The organisation also reminds the Tanzanian government that it is "a party to various international human rights treaties that mandate the protection of girls from the practice of FGM." 

The organisation urges people to write protest letters to the Tanzanian government, noting "the open defiance with which FGM continues," and noting "the incident in which the police in Matombo apparently failed to offer effective protection to girls seeking refuge from the practice, and request the authorities to investigate and bring appropriate disciplinary action against the policemen involved in this incident."

Sources: Based on Equality Now and afrol archives

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