My trip to Tanzania for passing exam turned out to be a lure into FGM den

Salma Abdi* thought her parents had sent her to Tanzania for passing her KCPE exam, only to learn it was all a ploy to have her undergo FGM. This is a stock image used for illustration.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Many parents in the coastal region are turning to cross-border female genital mutilation to escape the dragnet of local authorities.
  • Salma Abdi* says her cousin tried escaping in vain; a woman held her tightly to ensure she faced the cut.

Salma Abdi* could not wait to visit Tanzania. They live in Lunga Lunga, Kwale, a few kilometres from the Horohoro-Lunga Lunga border. She says she had this picture in her mind of how beautiful the neighbouring country was.

In 2012, her parents had promised to send her on a trip to Tanzania as a treat if she performed well in her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam. She worked hard and got 358 marks. The trip was arranged and the family agreed that Salma would stay with her relatives in Tanzania.

She still remembers the beaches, classic villas and five-star hotels she saw. She hadn’t seen such in Kwale. However, the visit had a dark side.

“I did not know that the memories I would come back with would come to affect my life in a huge way. The trip was for me to go and get circumcised. I joined my other cousins, who were older than me, where we were informed of our transformation from a girl to womanhood,” she recalls.

She says her cousin tried escaping in vain; a woman held her tightly as she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM). “A woman was called where we were assembled inside a room and the cut was conducted. We screamed, cried, but nobody was there to console us.”

According to a 2022 publication by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), cross-border FGM has emerged as a new threat rolling back the gains made towards ending FGM and it is estimated that one quarter of the 200 million girls and women affected are from the East African border areas in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda.

Kenya, in particular, is identified as a destination for cross-border FGM practice. According to findings from a report commissioned by Unicef and UNFPA, in collaboration with the Kenya Anti-FGM Board, 70 per cent of survey respondents from Uganda, and 60 per cent from Ethiopia, travelled to Kenya to undergo FGM. They do so to evade prosecution for a known criminal offence in their own countries.

In 2011, Kenya outlawed FGM, with anyone found culpable likely to face a minimum of three-year imprisonment and/or a fine of at least Sh200,000.

A 2020 analysis by Unicef says FGM prevalence among adolescent girls in Kenya has dropped from every five in 10, to everyone in 10 over the last three decades. The study also found out that girls from poor backgrounds in rural areas, with lower levels of education, were most likely to have undergone FGM.

Tanzania prohibits FGM under its Sexual Offences Special Provision Act of 1998. Because it has become difficult for the women to conduct FGM in Kenya, they sneak the girls out pretending to visit their relatives across the border.

Despite the cross-border threat, FGM prevalence has declined by six per cent in eight years to 15 per cent, meaning that 15 per cent of girls and women aged 15–49 have been circumcised, according to the recently released 2022 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) report.

The report shows that between 1998 and 2003, the cases dropped by six percent just as it did between 2009–14 and 2014–22. The decline rate was slowest between 2003 and 2008–09 at five per cent.

Salma's mother, Idah*, says they took her for the cut in Tanzania to avoid alarming their neighbours. “My sister called and informed me that her daughters were due to undergo the cut. I saw it is easier for us to travel since midwives are easily accessible in that country,” she says.

But Idah regrets going through with it, especially with her daughter having developed health complications and currently seeing a psychologist for developing psychological trauma.

Taita Taveta

Such cases are widespread, not just Kwale. In Taita Taveta, Mercy Nyambu, a children rights officer, notes that despite the enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2011, the practice is still rampant in the county, with infants, barely one week old, being cut behind closed doors, especially in rural areas.

“It is a sad situation, especially in cases where infants barely a week old are brought to the health facility in pain after undergoing the harmful practice. Others have died from excessive bleeding, while some grapple with health-related complications after being subjected to the cut,” Ms Nyambu says.

She confirms a number of girls are sneaked into Tanzania to undergo FGM.

“They are ferried by the motorcycle riders using interior routes where the child undergoes the cut in Tanzania and taken back at midnight when she has not even recovered. This is where some start to over-bleed.”

Ms Nyambu adds that the harmful practice is also conducted secretly in private hospitals.

“Lack of funding for us to advocate an end to FGM has greatly contributed to laxity, hence parents follow through with the tradition. Our findings show that about 20 children undergo the cut in a month and when schools close, it becomes a problem. We urge for a group of women to be posted to the borders to tame those crossing in and out of the country for the harmful practice.”

A study by the Ministry of Public Service and Gender carried out in 2020 revealed 61.3 per cent of under-fives have been subjected to FGM in Taita Taveta.

Areas listed as hotspots include Mata, Kitobo, Salaita, Timbila, Olkug, Ngutini, Eldoro and Marodo, all in Taveta sub-county. In Taita sub-county, the practice remains prevalent in Sagalla and Kasighau.

But why are FGM cases in the Coast region low? Is it because people are not reporting the cases?

Brighter Society of Kenya Organisation founder Sadiya Hussein notes: “They take their daughters from Kwale, Kilifi, Lamu and Mombasa to Garissa or Tana River. Also no one reports as the majority of Swahili communities don't practise it, hence it's assumed FGM is zero.”

FGM involves the removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. More women are now undergoing a sewn closed method compared to the cut and removing of flesh.

In Tana River, Kinakomba MCA Hamid Darweish says: “Tana River has six indigenous tribes: Pokomo, Wardey, Orma, Munyoyaya, Ilwana and Watta. Out of the six, only one community does not practise FGM (Pokomo).

These communities mostly practise type 3, which involves removal of all the external genitalia; they are sewn together leaving only a small place for urination.”

He adds that several reasons contribute to FGM in Tana River, cultural beliefs being the dominant. “The government should support sensitisation to the dangers of FGM, especially among communities in the remotest villages, and extend legal and medical services to them.”

Mr Darweish says Tana River lacks rescue centres, hence the government should consider building them to provide safe space for survivors. “The government should also consider supporting the action plans developed 2022 to ensure, through the department of education, that life skills are taught to students and pupils, including reproductive health and FGM.”

*Names changed to protect the identity of the girl. A stock image has also been used for illustration but does not represent the character in the article.