Tanzania: Failing to Enforce the Law Against Female Genital Mutilation

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1 Jun 2001

Female genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female circumcision, is prohibited by law in Tanzania. The law is not effectively enforced, however, and the practice of FGM continues openly. In some parts of Tanzania, mass circumcisions are carried out in which thousands of girls are genitally cut at the same time, generally in December. In December 1996, according to reports, of the 5,000 girls who were cut 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." Despite appeals from Equality Now and other non-governmental organizations in the country, as well as internationally, the Government of Tanzania has allowed these circumcision ceremonies to proceed, and despite the public defiance of circumcisers such as Maria Magwaiga, no action has been taken to hold them accountable under the law.

FGM is practiced in various parts of the country, including among the Gogo people in Central Tanzania. Recently, a 78 year-old Gogo circumciser from the Dodoma Rural District, Nyangadule Kodi, defended FGM publicly. In an interview posted on the internet in May 2001 by the African Church Information Service, she 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 uncircumcised women because such women are "not polite and are over-sexed."

FGM is also practiced by the Maasai people in the Morogoro Region. According to the Tanzanian Legal and Human Rights Centre, local government officials have issued statements against FGM, but there is no government follow-up. The local church intervenes 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 investigated one case in Morogoro, in which three girls 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 protect the girls, the police arrested one of the pastors, as well as his wife, for having taken unlawful custody of minor children. The pastor was beaten severely in the presence of his wife and asked to confess that he had raped the girls. The three girls were taken to the hospital for an examination, where it was confirmed that they had not been raped. They were then turned over by the police to their father, who had them circumcised the next day and married within a month, one as a third wife. The three girls were aged 13 and 14 at the time. One of them is already a mother now. When the Legal and Human Rights Centre interviewed one of the girls, she told them how painful it was to her that even the police and the courts could not help them in their efforts to save themselves from genital mutilation. Subsequently, however, after the Legal and Human Rights Centre submitted its report on the incident to the authorities, the young girls changed their versions of events and said they did not want to pursue the prosecution of their father.

In 1998, the Parliament of Tanzania amended the Penal Code to specifically prohibit FGM. Section 169A(1) of the Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act provides that anyone having custody, charge or care of a girl under eighteen years of age who causes her to undergo FGM commits the offence of cruelty to children. The penalty for this offence is a term of imprisonment from five to fifteen years, a fine of up to 300,000 shillings, or both imprisonment and the fine. The law also provides for the payment of compensation by the perpetrator to the person against whom the offence was committed. In addition to having passed its own law against FGM, Tanzania is a party to various international human rights treaties that mandate the protection of girls from the practice of FGM including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights.

FGM takes different forms in different countries: the partial or total removal of the clitoris (clitoridectomy), the removal of the entire clitoris and the cutting of the labia minora (excision), or in its most extreme form the removal of all external genitalia and the stitching together of the two sides of the vulva, leaving only a very small vaginal opening (infibulation). It is estimated that more than 130 million girls and women around the world have undergone genital mutilation. At least 2 million girls every year, 6,000 every day, are at risk of suffering FGM. The cutting, which is generally done without anaesthetic, may have lifelong health consequences including chronic infection, severe pain during urination, menstruation, sexual intercourse, and childbirth, and psychological trauma. Some girls die from the cutting, usually as a result of bleeding or infection. An extreme form of the many traditional practices used around the world to deny women independence and equality, FGM is defended by both men and women in the cultures where it is practiced as a rite of passage and a social prerequisite of marriage. It is used to control women's sexuality by safeguarding virginity and suppressing sexual desire.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the following authorities and urge them take more effective action to end the practice of FGM in Tanzania - through education as well as enforcement of the law. Note the open defiance with which FGM continues and the general failure of affected populations to respect the law prohibiting FGM. Note 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. Urge them also to issue formal instructions to police nationwide to enforce the law against FGM and protect girls from its violation. Appeals should be addressed to:

Mr. Omar Mahita
Inspector General of Police
PO Box 9492
Dar-es-Salaam, TANZANIA
Fax: 255-22-211-1090

Honorable H. Bakari Mwatachu
Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs
P O Box 9050
Dar-es-Salaam, TANZANIA
Fax: 255-22-211-3236