COVID-19 school closures leading to increased risk of FGM in rural Tanzania

by Noah Wekesa

Meet Ibrahim Ibrahim ole Kinwaa, a #NoMoreViolence Champion from Tanzania:

“I’m Ibrahim, I’m 39 and from Tanzania’s Tanga region. I live in a small rural town with my wife and one child as well as my sister, who is in secondary school, and my brother, who is in college. Because of COVID-19, I have been at home for a long time, but my wife and I sometimes have to leave the house for work.

When I return, I do not have contact with anyone until I change my clothes and take a shower. I also have family in rural areas, but I am afraid to visit them because I am more likely to catch the virus than they are. I mostly sit at home like the others”.

What work do you do with Amref Heath Africa?

“I finished university in 2016 – the same year the government changed the law to forbid girls to return to school once they become pregnant – and joined Amref in 2017. During my four years working with on the Elimisha project, I have focused on ending FGM and all violence against girls and women along with SRHR, advocacy, and community sensitisation work. Last year, I became an official Pan-African Champion to end FGM”.

How has COVID-19 affected your area, especially in terms of GBV?

“Many things have changed. We are not allowed to move around freely, and as a result, our Masai community is facing many challenges”.

  1. School closures and increasing FGM. “The schools are closed for two months now, so many parents are using this time to pass their girls through the rite of passage. GBV is on the rise in terms of exposing girls to FGM and early marriage because there is no sense of when schools might reopen. If they are married off, many girls will lose the opportunity of schooling altogether”.
  • Economic downturn. “Business is greatly affected. My specific community is pastoralist – we are totally dependent on cows – which we sell to cover our basic needs. People from Zanzibar, Kenya, or Morocco, who bought cows from here, cannot travel and buy them. There are no means of getting money without selling cows”.
  • Reduced access to healthcare and health information. “We cannot gather people and raise awareness about issues such as FGM or HIV. People are still sick from other diseases, but there is reduced access to hospitals and health services – people are losing family members and friends due to less care”.
  • Depleted social life. “Our social life is also greatly affected because people cannot visit and sit with one another to share stories. Stories are important to us and we are not used to sitting alone inside. This adds to the stress”.

How has COVID-19 affected you and your work with women and girls?

“Many people, especially those in rural areas, still do not know about COVID-19 – they walk around without masks and often do not practice social distancing. Awareness forums are one of our best tools for spreading information in our communities, but right now, we cannot use them. We also cannot visit rural areas to explain how to protect girls.

Instead, we are making a plan to reach out to communities using the radio. Starting on June 15, I will begin a live show in the local area that will address the importance of protecting girls during COVID-19. We will be addressing all government authorities and local traditional leaders about the issues girls face – such as forced marriage, pregnancies, or FGM – while schools are closed.”

What drives you and the outreach work that you do?

“Young men also have a rite of passage – I was circumcised as I was going into secondary school on the very same day as my youngest sister, who was 12, was cut. It did not go well for her, and she was losing a great amount of blood and nearly died. I felt helpless because, in my condition, I could not help her.

After this rite of passage, she was married off without alternatives. I thought to myself when I finish school, I will make it my mission to protect girls from violence like this. I was massively influenced by my sister getting the cut right before my eyes – I saw how she suffered.”

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