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FGM in Africa: Achieving zero tolerance

Tanya Barron - 06.02.13

Tanya BarronWhen she was a little girl, Kadi Doumbia dreamt of being married and having a family. But she never equated marriage with suffering. And she never dreamt that it would threaten her life.

Just before she was married, as a young girl, she underwent Female Genital Mutilation - a cutting of part or all of the exterior female sex organs. Already a potentially fatal procedure, lingering conditions can include incontinence, scarring, and severe menstrual pain.

The combination of giving birth at a young age, coupled with the impact of this procedure led to Kadi having excessive abdominal bleeding, followed by days of paralysis that came close to taking her life.

FGM in Africa - KadiNow at 43 years old, Kadi is waging a war on this traditional practice and cultural ideas that almost took her life and left her children motherless.  And with the help of Plan Mali and another local NGO - Development Research and Support, she is succeeding. In her community, where roughly 98% of all girls underwent genital mutilation - for two years now - no girl has been subjected to FGM again.

I’ve just returned from Tanzania, another country where the link between FGM and early marriage is only too evident. According to the World Health Organization, around 15% of all women aged 15-49 have undergone genital mutilation and - although Tanzania has seen progress over the past few years in reducing child marriage - today, one in six girls aged 15-19 is married.

It was while visiting a remote corner in the far north east of the country that the sheer magnitude of child marriage became clear.

I was told of a mobile health clinic that was performing sterling work immunizing young women of perceived child bearing age against tetanus. The age of these girls? As young as 12 years old. Cultural norms decreed that these girls, members of the Masai tribe, were expected to give birth as soon as they reached puberty.

For many Tanzanian girls, the gauntlet of gender based violence begins before they leave school. I visited a secondary school where Plan had built a dormitory where girls could sleep during the week while attending schools – a simple project with far-reaching consequences.

Zina, a slightly built 14-year-old student, told me how before the dormitory was built, here classmates would be attacked as they hiked long distances along dirt track roads to reach school. The alternative was to stay in the nearest village where they would be abused or set to work on household chores by host families.

In the year before the dormitory was completed, nine secondary school students got pregnant and dropped out, compared to not a single one since completion - effective aid indeed.

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