Meet The Woman Running A Safe House Protecting Girls From FGM In Tanzania

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One of the most despicable and ugly fights in the battle for women’s rights globally is against female genital mutilation. It is a cultural practice often referred to as female circumcision where girls, commonly in Middle Eastern and African nations have their genitals cut by a blade or a knife as this is considered to be a practice that keeps them “pure”. It does not of preserve purity. Instead it causes major health problems such as excessive bleeding, HIV (due to lack of sterile cutting instruments being used) psychological damage and in some cases even death.

Despite the perceptions often floated about by the media because of the regions they are mostly practiced in, FGM is not necessarily a religious practice. Thanks to migration in the Western World, there have been reports of FGM happening in places like the UK who are cracking down on it and using education and health as a tool to ensure the families who do think it is an acceptable form of keeping a girl pure know how horrific and damaging it is.

In the UK, as part of a major government campaign with the Guardian newsmedia site, they have found that when younger children are educated about the grave implications to a girl after undergoing FGM, the practice is less likely to happen.

According to the World Health Organization, around 140 million women and girls are living with the consequences of female genital mutilation around the world, most of them in Africa. The practice is also associated with child marriage and the end of an education for a girl.Internationally FGM is recognized as a human rights violation. But in Tanzania, for example, FGM is illegal, but it happens all the time.
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Across the country the practice seems to be on the decline, with the prevalence rate having dropped from 18 percent in 1996 to 15 percent in 2005, according to the Demographic and Health Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Health. However in rural areas where there is less public accountability and resources for women and girls to report it and escape from it, it is still widely practiced.One woman is bravely taking a front and center stand against this fight and has created a refuge center where girls can seek safety and protection, particularly during the “cutting season”. The safe house, located in Mugumun, seeks to help girls escaping the 6-week period starting in December every alternate year, where they are considered high risk for FGM, a traditional prerequisite for women before they get married in the area.

Rhobi Samwelly, this badass woman coordinating the efforts of the safe house, funded by local churches and mosques told the BBC that when it comes to FGM, it is a race against the clock for these girls. In the 2014 cutting season, the safe house rescued 154 girls.

“FGM and child marriage are illegal in our country. I would be a fool to allow a girl to go home to that. I’m going to work to make sure I save these girls,” she says.

Rhobi herself was a victim of FGM as a child but was fearful of undergoing the procedure because one of her friends died from it. She was told not to tell anyone about her friend’s tragic death. In Rhobi’s mind, if she had a place to escape to, like the safe house she is running today, she would’ve gladly gone there.

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The idea for the safe house came about after the 2012 cutting season when girls expressed the need for a safe house after they were educated about its dangers. Although the location can only house 40 girls at a time, no one is turned away, and the girls are often crammed into rooms and beds in order that they aren’t forced to go back to what would be a much worse situation than having to share living quarters.

Girls can stay there free of charge until they are potentially clear of danger and then are encouraged to go to school. Aside from offering life-saving resources for girls in the area, the Mugumun safe house also has volunteers who talk to parents to educate them on why FGM is not something that will help any young woman, and get them to agree to keeping their daughters safe by signing a pledge form along with local police and village leaders. But not all the parents are willing to listen to sense.

“We started to build a relationship between the parents and the girls. We visited their homes and give information to the parents. Some of the girls were still in primary school,” said Rhobi to the Telegraph.

“Some of the fathers are very sad their daughters escaped FGM. Some of the fathers are secretaries for traditional leaders and if their girls don’t have FGM the traditional leaders will drop them from that position and select another man. So the fathers want the girls to come back.”

“The problem is that FGM is done secretly. It’s difficult for police officers to safeguard every household to find out if it’s happening or not,” said the acting district commissioner for Serengeti during the cutting season, John Henjewele.

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The girls are as young as 10 years old and range into teen years. While Rhobi and her team try to cover all bases by assessing each girl’s risk factor according to their individual family situations and offer resources accordingly, what they need more than anything is for local authorities to be on their side rather than turn a blind eye as is often the case where FGM is rife in rural areas.

“We are meeting with the traditional leaders and talking to them about the effects of FGM. There are some people who are changing. Three traditional leaders changed in 2012. The girls in those areas are now in secondary schools. Even today we’re talking with more leaders in other areas telling them about the effects of FGM,” she said.

It’s also about engaging men in the fight to know they can play a crucial role. Like with any human rights issue, especially concerning women, it requires advocacy from both genders to really make an impact.

“We put more emphasis on the young girls and boys, telling them about the effects. We wants boys to know what happens to girls who have had FGM. The boys promise they won’t seek to marry girls who have had FGM. We’re trying to put some challenges to the community. We want people to stop forcing girls to have FGM.”

While it is a precarious fight to commit to, as some of these young girls have suffered violent acts such as rape and beatings at the hands of their own family members in order to carry out a barbaric act that they think will preserve their womanhood, Rhobi Samwelly knows it is worth it.

“FGM and child marriage are illegal in our country. I would be a fool to allow a girl to go home to that. I’m going to work to make sure I save these girls,” she said.

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2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Heterosexual Tribal Women In Tanzania Are Marrying Each Other For Very Unique Reasons - GirlTalkHQ

  2. Pingback: Meet the Woman Behind Safe House – Mugumu Safe House

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