In the Mara Region of Northeastern Tanzania, the month of November marks the beginning of the “cutting season.” The frequency of female genital mutilation (FGM) in this area increases sharply during the school holiday months of November and December, as many young girls are involuntarily subjected to extremely dangerous mutilation practices for non-medical reasons. Although the practice is against the law in Tanzania, it continues to be widespread, particularly in rural areas like the Mara Region. In addition, it is widely culturally accepted to the degree that “during the cutting season, you can’t get protection in the community” explains human rights activist Rhobi Samwelly.
In rural parts of Tanzania, which are primarily cow-based economies, many girls are forced by their parents to endure FGM in order to increase the value of their dowry as girls who have not been “cut” are considered promiscuous. Additionally, cultural tradition forces many girls to endure FGM for similar reasons: to decrease rumours of promiscuity and increase purity. Some girls and young women are shunned from their communities if they do not undergo FGM.
The consequences of FGM are severe. In the short term, girls experience extreme pain and a high risk of infection, as many of the tools used during FGM are not sterilized properly and will sometimes be used on multiple women in a single day. Excessive bleeding can sometimes cause imminent death, not to mention prolonged, excruciating pain. In fact, FGM has been described as “a slow poison killer.” If a girl survives FGM, there are still still long term health consequences: infection, infertility, difficulties with childbirth and more.
According to Samwelly, eliminating FGM in Tanzania requires a “multi-pronged approach” that includes a combination of cultural change and legal enforcement. Since 1998, FGM has been criminalized in Tanzania, yet, as of 2019, 10% of Tanzanian women between the ages of 15 and 49 still undergo FGM. Cultural standards in rural communities are deeply entrenched and thus slow to change. The legal means necessary to enforce laws against FGM are not allocated sufficiently to these communities. Thus, many advocates and activists, both Tanzanian and international, are working to eliminate FGM through more atypical means.
Crowd2Map is an example of such activism: a grassroots crowdsourced mapping project which has been operating in Tanzania since 2015. The goal of the project is to fill in the blank spaces on the maps of Tanzania, particularly rural regions like the Mara, so that the locations of lifesaving resources are accessible to victims of FGM. First, local activists identify areas of Tanzania which have not been properly mapped. Then, volunteers from all over the world comb through satellite imagery in order to trace and save landmarks. All the data created by volunteers is compiled into an open-source street map called OpenStreetMap, which is used for a variety of humanitarian purposes.
Crowd2Map is particularly interested in the data which can best serve victims of FGM. Their local volunteers in Tanzania add the names of streets, neighbourhoods, clinics, shelters, and safe houses onto the map. These details are crucial for many victims of FGM. In particular, clinics, shelters, and safe houses provide lifesaving resources to women and girls who are victims of FGM. A woman or girl who flees from home in order to avoid FGM can find refuge and resources at a clinic, shelter or safe house. Rhobi Samwelly runs two safe houses for girls in the Butiama and Serengeti districts of the Mara region as part of a project called Hope For Girls and Women. These safe houses provide immediate protection and short term shelter to women and girls fleeing FGM. Hope for Girls and Women provides all women and girls with free shelter, food and medical tests. In addition, Hope for Girls and Women provides safe house residents with free classes in vocational training, such as tailoring and computer skills in order to support women entrepreneurship and long term independence. Samwelly says that the Crowd2Map project “has helped us a lot and makes our work reaching villages and rescuing girls much easier”, adding that, “girls now know the safe places in their village to flee to.”
Not only have mapping resources allowed at risk women and girls to find shelters and safe houses, but these same resources have also allowed organizations to identify at risk women and girls. As the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” One preventative technique involves rescue teams identifying girls and women at high risk of FGM and, with their consent, removing them from the dangerous situation. For instance, the mapping resources created by the Crowd2Map project have been used by the Tanzanian Development Trust to help their rescue teams find and protect girls in imminent danger of FGM. Jane Chapman, a chair of the Trust, says that the team often gets calls in the middle of the night with reports of girls who are going to be cut in a certain village. “Together with the police gender desk and social welfare, they go and rescue the girls and bring them back to the safe house.” This would not be possible without the robust and comprehensive maps created by Crowd2map.
In 2016, Rhobi Samwelly was featured in In the Name of Your Daughter, a film directed by Canadian filmmaker Giselle Portenier. Portenier’s aim was to tell the stories of both FGM survivors and the human rights activists who advocated for them, most especially Samwelly. The film resonated with North America and African audiences, to the point that a screening at the Zanzibar International Film Festival “shattered the festival’s previous attendance records”. However, the most important audience was the women and girls who themselves have been victims of FGM. The Canadian High Commission flew Portenier to Tanzania in 2016 to organize small, rural screenings of the film for victims of FGM. Porteneier explained afterwards that “because the audiences engaged hugely with the film, and the protagonists were there, the screenings ended up being a real and live celebration of the courageous girls and women who are fighting to end FGM in their community.”
Samwelly finds hope in such creative modes of storytelling. “The film should be shown in every village in Tanzania where FGM is still prevalent. It is encouraging other organizations to join hands in the fight against this terribly harmful practice.” From Canadian filmmakers and volunteer mappers to Tanzanian activists, all hands are on deck in the movement to eliminate FGM both in Tanzania and around the world.
Edited by Naya Moser
Maeve is in her fourth year at McGill, studying Honors International Development and Classics. She spent last Winter traveling across East Africa as part of the Africa Field Study Semester, and she spent most of this past summer learning to dive in the Great Lakes off of Northeastern Wisconsin (unsuccessfully, one might add).