“In our culture, they say if you do not cut the girl, they will not stay with their husband,” says 59-year-old Martha from Northern Tanzania.
Although today Martha is an activist and anti-FGM campaigner, for many years she worked as a ‘cutter’ – performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on young girls in her community.
Involving the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia, FGM is usually carried out on girls between infancy and the age of 15 and can have serious lifelong consequences.
“I started working as a cutter when I was around 30 years old,” says Martha. “It is hard to count how many girls I cut in total.”
In the Kilimanjaro region where Martha grew up, FGM is associated with deep-rooted religious and cultural beliefs held by the Maasai people, and the cutting ritual has been performed for generations. Girls undergoing FGM are expected to not show any sign of fear during the agonizing ritual, which often takes place in front of a crowd as part of a coming-of-age celebration.
Martha had been cut herself at the age of 14, in preparation for her marriage the following year.
“At that time, it was mandatory for all girls to be cut before marriage,” she explains. “I was happy for it to happen because I wanted to get married.
“I had seen others being cut so I knew what to expect. It was very painful, and I was told to stay still and not complain, otherwise I would be known as a coward. It hurt for an entire month, and I was not allowed outside for three months, but I had no choice, I just had to persevere.”
Despite her own painful experience, when Martha was selected by the elder women in her community to become a cutter, she gladly accepted the role.
“Our community valued the cutters, especially the ones who did the cutting well and so the girls did not get sick afterward,” she says.
It was not until years later when Martha attended a training course run by the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM), a local organization working in partnership with Equality Now, that she learned about the dangers of FGM and began to question the practice.
“Since I got training from NAFGEM, I’ve learned a lot and have come to hate FGM,” says Martha. “Now when we meet as women I tell them the consequences of cutting. I go to schools to talk to teachers, and I tell students to resist being cut.”
Thanks in part to training programs like the one offered by NAFGEM and Equality Now, rates of FGM are declining – a 2013 UNICEF report found that girls in Tanzania aged 15-19 were three times less likely to have been cut than women aged 45-49.
But with three million girls across Africa thought to be at risk every year, FGM remains a significant problem. Laws against the practice can help, but only if they are enforced.
“The law has helped reduce the rate of cutting because people fear being arrested,” says Martha. “But many want to carry on and would continue if it wasn’t banned.”
Martha says that her own changed views about FGM have been met with resistance in some parts of the community.
“There are those who hate me because I have taken a stand against it,” she says. “But because I now know the effects of FGM, I cannot stop fighting.”