“It was like I was half dead.” That is how Joyce recalls the moment she was cut. “I cried a lot when I saw the blood.”
At 14-years-old, Joyce underwent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – a practice which violates a girl’s human rights and which can have serious long-term health implications.
FGM comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the genital organs for non-medical reasons, and is mostly carried out between infancy and age 15.
A pre-cursor to child marriage
After she was cut, Joyce was forced into marriage. “Once a girl is circumcised, the community assumes that she is ready for marriage even if she is under 18,” she explains. “I realised what I had lost as I watched my friends continue with their studies as I suffered in my marriage.”
Her story is echoed by Nyamburi, who was also married when she was just 14. “After FGM, you must get married as it proves that you’re a woman and you can take care of a family,” she says. “I was forced to quit school and take care of the husband that had been chosen for me,” Nyamburi adds.
Joyce and Nyamburi are from Tanzania’s Mara region, where the prevalence of FGM and child marriage is much higher than the national average - around 40% of girls undergo FGM, while the rate of child marriage is 54%. With the support of the European Commission and in partnership with the Children’s Dignity Forum, Plan International has been working to eliminate the practice in high-risk communities.
Changing mindsets as peer educators
Starting in March 2015, the project set out to empower girls and communities to say no to these harmful practices. Joyce and Nyamburi are now committed to making change as peer educators.
“I’d say that FGM is like a slow poison killer. But people now understand the effect of FGM as we go around educating them,” says Joyce. “Saving girls from FGM means saving them from child marriage and enables them to achieve their educational dreams.”
“It is a tough job but slowly we are getting there,” adds Nyamburi.
From blades to flour: engaging local leaders
The project targeted young women and men between the ages of 10 and 24 years, as well as community leaders, religious leaders, teachers, parents and caregivers. As one respected local leader, Mwita Nyasibora, explains, there has been a shift in mindset among his community and in the region at large.
Today, instead of forcing girls to undergo genital mutilation, leaders dab flour on the girls’ faces as a symbolic transformation from childhood to adulthood.
“I am sure FGM will be abolished,” says Mr Nyasibora.
Nyamburi, too, is determined to see the end of the practice. “Frankly speaking, I don’t want my children to be cut, nor anybody else in my community,” she says.