In 2004, my aunty Sarah Moris went to the Mara region in Tanzania to give birth. She fled back to the city in Dar es Salaam for fear of having her genitals cut while in labour.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is practiced in 28 countries in Africa, including Tanzania and in a few countries in Asia and the Middle East. In Tanzania the practice continues secretly upcountry because it is against the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act of 1998.

According to the Tanzania Media Women's Association (TAMWA) Executive Director Ananilea Nkya, girls who escape the practice are sometimes later forced to face it during labour when their mother in-laws bribe medical personnel to perform the surgery.

My aunt, who is from the same region but different tribes, was asked by her husband to go to his village to deliver, so that she could have help from the elderly women, as it was her first marriage.

As she was waiting to have her baby, her 17-year-old sister-in-law informed her that she was to undergo FGM during birth, as their culture required their men to only marry women who had undergone FGM. She further learned that her husband had conspired with his people to bring her to the village, under the pretext of having help with the baby after she had delivered.

With the help of her relatives who lived nearby in the region, she was able to flee back to the city where she had her baby safely.

Despite the fact that we are now in the 21th century, some men and women cling steadfast to harmful cultural practices. It is ironic that women themselves refuse to do away with such cultural practices, they are even ready to put a fellow woman’s life at risk by cutting her genitals while she is in the process of giving birth.

Putting an end to FGM - Is it possible?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is putting on pressure to end FGM done secretly by health professionals. A 2004/2005 Research by the United States Agency International Development (USAID) shows that in Tanzania 89% of FGM is traditionally performed and two percent medically performed.

According to Nkya, more effort is needed to rescue girls especially in the rural areas.  The USAID study shows that prevalence by age is 14.6%  in the ages 15 -49, 9.1% in those aged between 15 and 19 years, and 16%  in the 35-39 years category.

In urban areas FGM is performed in 7.2% of the female population, while it is 17.6% in rural areas. There are wide variations by region, from 0.8% to 57.6% of the female population.

Dr Guyo Jadesa, a consulting obstetrician and gynecologist in Nairobi, says that FGM can be life threatening. “Immediate physical complications include hemorrhage, failure to heal as a result of wound sepsis and injury of adjacent tissue of urethra or even death,” says Jadesa. “There is also a risk of HIV infection due to the use of one instrument in multiple operations.”

Jadesa  also highlights that FGM could be linked to increased complications in childbirth and even maternal deaths. He says the deaths attributable to FGM ranged from 11 to 17 per 1000 deliveries while in relation to background prenatal mortality rates of 40-60 per 1000 deliveries in the world.

An estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women have undergone the practice and at least three million girls worldwide are at risk of being subjected to the practice each year. FGM/C comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.    

Sexual purity - the reason why it's 'necessary'
Studies show that FGM is a requirement that enforces the cultural value of sexual purity in females by controlling female sexual desires, thereby ensuring virginity before marriage and fidelity throughout a woman`

Along with numerous other commitments to gender equality and ending violence against women, most of the region's leaders signed on to the Southern African Protocol on Gender and Development last August. This agreement includes provisions to ensure that states shall take measures including legislation, where appropriate, to discourage traditional norms, including social, economic, cultural and political practices which legitimise and exacerbate the persistence and tolerance of gender based violence with a view to eliminate them. FGM is one such form of violence which must be addressed. .

There is a need for the media in Tanzania to educate the public on the dangers of continuing with this practice, which not only dangers the health of women but might also cause their deaths. People need to rethink their attitudes towards harmful cultural practices. This is not to say that we need to ignore our culture but to keep the best parts and discard the one sthat cause harm

Imagine if this young woman had not alerted my aunty! Maybe she would be mutilated today or even dead caused by bleeding of the exercise and birth as a whole.

Rosemary Mirondo works with The Guardian in Tanzania. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service series for the 16 Days of Activism.

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