Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls

by Terre Des Hommes Netherlands
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Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls
Covid-19: FGM protection for 200 Tanzanian girls

Imagine your peaceful childhood is disrupted by intense pressure from your community to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As a result, this makes your parents flee from their lifelong home to seek safety. For Rhobi, this imaginary scenario became reality.

The pressure to go through FGM started building as soon as Rhobi turned thirteen. Her relatives started pushing her parents that the girl had reached the right age and that most of her peers had actually already undergone the ritual. They added that her parents would in turn get a higher bride price for Rhobi once she was mutilated. 

Rhobi was not spared either. While doing her chores around the village, women would comment how she would never get a husband if she did not get cut. Her peers who had already undergone FGM called her a coward and told her that they could never be friends as long as she had not been cut. Luckily some of her peers were kind to her and even encouraged her.

Rhobi´s parents were previously pro-FGM but had been made aware of the negative impact of the practice. This changed their mind and they wanted their children to do well in school.

Around February 2020, the demand from the villagers became so pushy that Rhobi´s parents fled to Dar es Salaam for safety. Rhobi, however, could not go with them as she was about to sit for her final primary school exams.

Covid-19 and the looming danger
The girl was left in the care of her grandmother. Once her parents had settled down, Rhobi would soon follow. She was instructed to watch out for warning signs of secret FGM preparations and that she should contact the ATFGM rescue centre when she was under threat.

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the closure of schools. The Kuria community seized the opportunity and started to mobilise girls for FGM outside the normal cutting season. Rhobi began feeling uneasy. “I was feeling unsafe when the cutting began after the school closed down due to Covid-19,” she explains. Behind her back, her grandmother was already putting everything in place for Rhobi’s initiation. Rhobi noticed the signs and decided to act immediately. She pretended that she was going to fetch water and took this opportunity to escape to the ATFGM rescue centre.

The ATFGM rescue centre became Rhobi´s new home for almost one year. Despite the disruption and change of environment, she successfully completed her primary examination and joined high school.

“I’m very happy to be safe from FGM. I am determined to do well in my O-level examinations. Once I start earning some income I will support my family and seek to protect girls from FGM,” Rhobi says.

In February 2021 with the help of ATFGM, Rhobi was reunited with her parents in Dar es Salaam, where she has continued with her studies. Her dream is to become a lawyer and help “people who face any kind of gender-based violence”, particularly girls at risk of FGM.

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Many girls in sub-Sahara Africa grow up knowing that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is their foreland. FGM has lifelong repercussions for the women and girls who underwent it. It is not only a breach of the law, but a violence of their rights. That is why Terre des Hommes Netherlands stands up for these girls, specifically for girls in the Kuria community in Northern Tanzania.

Girls who refuse to be mutilated, face hard consequences in their families and communities. Their brave decision means they will be insulted, abused, socially excluded, thrown out of the house and in extreme circumstances even renounced. 

Debi (14): "I am regularly called out in public for not having been cut. When I was 9 years old, my father sent me to the cutting ceremony of my sisters. What I remember mostly is the profuse bleeding. This made me vow never to be mutilated.” 

Eunice (15): “Because I refused to be cut, I am as good as dead in the eyes of my father. Daughters of him are mutilated, or do not exist.”

Stefani (17): “My father’s clan is insisting that I should be mutilated and then married off.”

Debora (16): “My brother never wanted me to go to school. He wanted me to stay at home so that he could marry me off.”

Rose (17): “When I refused to be mutilated, my mother and grandmother locked me in a room and  began beating me up.”

Nice (15): “My brother renounced me when I refused to be mutilated. He told me to leave our home and forget I have a family. He also said that all my belongings would be burned.”

December 2020 cutting period: 473 girls rescued
Traditionally, the Kuria community mutilates their girls in the month of December, every other year as their ancestors dictate. In December 2020, 11 of the 12 clans inhabiting Tarime district, held their so-called cutting season. During this period, 473 girls were rescued and protected from FGM by Terre des Hommes Netherlands and partner ATFGM. These girls found temporary shelter in the Masanga rescue centre, their safe haven during the mutilation period.

Together with our partner ATFGM, in the past three years Terre des Hommes Netherlands has achieved:
> 1,516 Kuria girls have been rescued and protectedfrom FGM. They were given temporary shelter in the Masanga rescue centre so that they can avoid the ceremony and undergo an alternative rite of passage to adulthood.
> 724 children were able to continue their education with our support.
> 144 child rights clubs were set up and supported.
>165 children were trained and supported as peer educators, to sensitise their fellow children on the effects of FGM.
> 48 traditional leaders (Kuria elders) and 66 traditional mutilators (ngaribas) renounced FGM.

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It takes guts for a girl to refuse genital mutilation, as it is going against the wishes, traditions and norms of her parents as well as her community. The family of Rhobi (12) from Masanga, Tanzania has been trying to have her cut three times already - every time she was rescued just in time. What saved her, was the ability to recognise the signs of an upcoming FGM ceremony.

Domestic chores and farming

Rhobi grew up in a family where education for girls was not regarded as important. Like with many girls of the Kuria community, her parents considered her destination to be early marriage, right after she had undergone Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Rhobi was always discouraged from attending classes. She never managed to go to school the full five days per week - at best she would make it two or three times a week. As the oldest girl in a family of eight, most days she was told to stay home and do domestic chores or farming activities during school hours.

FGM preparations

Despite her irregular school attendance, Rhobi learned one important lesson: the signs of FGM preparations. In October 2019, when she came home from school, she noticed that a FGM ceremony was about to happen. Knowing that she was the oldest girl in the household, even though she was only 11 years old at that time, she sensed that it was meant for her. Rhobi started planning her escape, making sure her parents would not suspect anything - and realising she had to be quick since FGM happens early in the morning. 

Courage to resist

“When the cutting season began in October 2019, my parents and other tribe members insisted that I should be mutilated and married off. They all turned against me. I felt abandoned, nobody loved and cared about me.”  For a girl from the Kuria community in Tanzania, resisting to be genitally mutilated is not just rebelling against her parents’ wishes. It is going against the prevailing cultural and social norms of her community, opposing traditions and everything she has been socialised on from an early age. It often leads to repudiation.

Kidnap and fake reconciliation

That same evening Rhobi escaped, she literally ran all the way to the safety of the ATFGM shelter. The shelter was to become her semi-permanent home, as her parents tried to force her into mutilation two more times. First they conspired with staff of Rhobi’s school to kidnap her in break time. Then, after accepting the girl back home in what seemed a successful reconciliation when the cutting season had ended, the man whom she had been promised to, lured her relatives with a higher bride price if Rhobi was mutilated.

Personal safety

In all instances Rhobi was rescued in time. Staying at home was no longer an option with a view to her personal safety. The girl moved back to the ATFGM rescue centre, where she still was during the Covid-19 outbreak in Tanzania. When the country re-opened schools in June 2020, Rhobi was transferred to the school sharing the compound with the ATFGM shelter, for extra safety. 

Peer educator & future social worker

“Now I am happy because there are people who care about my wellbeing.” Rhobi is using her personal experience to save other girls from similar threats. She has become a member of the child rights club in her school. As a peer educator she raises awareness on FGM among her school mates. In the future she wants to become a social worker. “When I grow up, I will utilise my education to support victims of child abuse and to provide services to the community especially those who are in need.”

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Education has resumed for children in Tanzania, after a closure of three months due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Universities and vocational training institutions already reopened beginning of June. Primary and secondary schools have now opened their doors as well. Girls that are attending day schools in the direct environment of Masanga centre, the safe space where girls were protected from Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) during the school closedown, are remaining in the shelter.

Safe place during lockdown

The Masanga centre saw an influx of girls seeking protection at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Tanzania. When learning institutions closed, many girls could not go home as their families were preparing to forcefully subject them to FGM. A total of 171 children came to the shelter for safety. With the schools reopening, 84 of them have joined the boarding facilities of various learning centres: 12 in primary schools, 51 in secondary schools, 19 in vocational training institutions, and 2 in teachers training colleges.

Family reconciliation 

Currently there are 87 girls remaining in Masanga centre, 85 school going and 2 out of school children. The school going children study in nearby schools while family reconciliation, home safety assessments and sourcing for boarding schools are still underway.

Catch up on syllabus

Tanzania is the first country in East Africa to allow students and pupils to return to schools. The country had earlier reopened universities and other higher learning institutions. In a schedule issued for lessons and examinations by the Minister for Education, Science and Technology, schools need to cover the syllabus within a set time frame. To succeed in catching up, schools have been asked to add two additional hours to bridge the time lost during the lockdown period.

Safety measures

Back to school is accompanied by a strict guideline from Tanzania’s Health Ministry to help students protect themselves from COVID-19. Schools have been instructed to install hand-washing facilities and arrange running water. They are also required to educate school children about safety measures like wearing masks in school assembly and classrooms.


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Project Leader:
Monique Janssens
Den Haag, Netherlands

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