As rain drizzled down on the dark-brown soil, Juliana Chore waded along the mud-soaked pathway to surrender her tools — knives, razor blades and calabashes — to the local official late in November 2017.
For almost 30 years, the knife-wielding granny had worked as a cutter, or ngariba, using gleaming blades to slice off the clitorises and labia of young girls during secret traditional ceremonies, with nothing to ease the pain. Now, she was ending that career, ready to step into another one.
The 58-year-old mother of six is among a growing number of female cutters dropping the practice of female genital mutilation across Tanzania, prodded by a combination of awareness campaigns and skill-development programs preparing them for other professions.
FGM, which involves the partial or complete removal of external female genitalia, is illegal in Tanzania but still widely practiced among some tribes.
Approximately 7.9 million girls and women in the East African nation are thought to have undergone genital mutilation, which can be life-threatening due to severe bleeding and infections. Rooted in cultural beliefs and religious practices, FGM ceremonies are traditionally overseen by older female cutters, for whom this also serves as crucial income in parts of the country where employment opportunities are limited.
I don’t want to spill the blood of innocent girls anymore.
Juliana Chore, a former cutter
But now, many ngaribas like Chore are joining entrepreneurship training programs and initiatives, dropping knives for alternative careers as farmers, tailors and businesswomen. When the Association for the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (ATFGM) — a local charity run by the Roman Catholic Church in northern Tanzania’s Tarime district — started a skill-development program for ngaribas in 2015, 60 women signed up. That number had soared to 165 by 2017, says Valerian Mgani, the program manager. In the northern Kilimanjaro region, another charity, the Network Against Female Genital Mutilation, has trained 300 former cutters to run micro enterprises since 2014, says executive coordinator Francis Selasini. These women then serve as peer counselors to encourage other ngaribas to try a different profession. These programs are building on legal changes and community campaigns that are also helping reduce FGM incidents, says Flavia Mwangovya, a program manager with London-based charity Equality Now.
“I don’t want to spill the blood of innocent girls anymore,” says Chore. “I’ve caused too much pain and suffering.”
Among communities that allow FGM, the practice is seen as bestowing a girl with purity and cleanliness, and as helping her find marriage partners. But campaigners say it’s an extreme form of violence used to control girls’ sexuality. The practice has survived, and it remains widespread despite awareness campaigns, in large part because it is closely tied both to tradition and to hard economics, suggests Mwangovya. “One of the biggest obstacles to eradicating FGM is that it is linked to traditional religion,” she says. “Older women oversee the ritual and it gives them social status and a source of income.”
It isn’t as though ngaribas don’t feel the pain of the girls they mutilate — in most cases, they’ve endured the violence themselves. Chore recalls seeing girls as young as 12 subjected to the excruciatingly painful ritual. Martha Daud, a 59-year-old Masai woman who began working as a cutter at age 29, can never forget her own mutilation — she was subsequently married off at age 15, in exchange for a goat and a plot of land by her mother.
But in a country where daily per capita income is $30, the economic push to continue the practice has long added to the weight of a tradition that community elders seek to continue. Daud says she would earn 30,000 Tanzanian shillings ($14) for each girl she cut. Chore says she too was earning “a lot of money” as a ngariba, and “some parents would give me a goat to slaughter.”
The entrepreneurship and skill-development programs offer a chance to break that economic logic. Former ngaribas who complete the ATFGM training are assisted with startup capital to open their own businesses. But that capital is conditional — the women are monitored to ensure they don’t return to their old jobs, says Mgani.
Flora Samwel, 51, a former cutter, says the skills she acquired through the ATFGM program helped her start a business and earn more money than she did as a ngariba. She uses sesame oil, glycerin and local perfumes to make petroleum jellies, which she sells at 2,500 Tanzanian shillings (roughly $1) for 200 grams. In a week, Samwel typically earns 200,000 Tanzanian shillings ($90); as a cutter, she earned a third of that. “I [also] know weaving and tie-dye,” she says proudly.
Daud, who underwent training with NAFGEM, now runs a small shop selling consumer goods and Masai jewelry and decorations. The mother of nine and grandmother of 20 says she realizes now that genital mutilation is a “sin,” and that she prays to God for forgiveness.
For sure, deep challenges linger for those trying to rid Tanzania of FGM. At its core, the best way to tackle the practice is to empower women, suggests Selasini of NAFGEM. “Because we know that women in societies where there are high levels of FGM don’t have social and economic power,” she says.
But these initial signs of success are sparking ambition among activists and former ngaribas that a long-elusive change may finally be possible. “We want to see more ngaribas drop their knives and work as entrepreneurs,” says Mgani of the ATFGM.
And Daud isn’t just running her business — she’s working with NAFGEM to raise awareness about the dangers of genital mutilation in her community. For years, her response to the mutilation she and millions of other women suffered was “you just have to deal with it.” Not anymore.
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