Ana Laizer, a ninth-grade student in Longido, Tanzania, dreams of going to university to become a successful businesswoman. For many girls her age, this dream might never become reality.
Access to education isn’t just limited by school fees and uniforms but also by cultural expectations that girls stop attending school after sixth-grade and instead take part in cultural rituals to prepare them for marriage.
Female genital mutilation is a common practice in Tanzania and other countries. Young girls sometimes undergo FGM, a process to remove part or all of a girl’s external genitals. The dangerous procedure can cause serious damage, physically and emotionally, or even death. Marriage is the next step, and finishing school is out of the question.
A Mennonite Central Committee partner, Tanzania Education and Micro Business Opportunity Trust, or TEMBO, teaches fifth-grade students about reproductive health and the harmful effects of FGM through a program called “Sara and Juma.” It also encourages families to keep their daughters in school by providing tutoring camps during the break between the sixth and seventh grades.
TEMBO executive director Paulina Sumayani said it’s a challenging message for some Maasai communities, because they don’t acknowledge a girl has reached womanhood or adulthood unless she has been circumcised.
“People have been doing [FGM] for so many years, so it is not easy to tell a person to change that habit,” she said. “It is a very slow process, but it is happening.”
TEMBO encourages alternative rites of passage to signify adulthood, including community gatherings, educating the girl about her body and giving gifts to her, just like they would if she would be circumcised.
Sumayani said TEMBO is doing life-saving and empowering work in Tanzania, but without MCC’s financial support, the staff wouldn’t be able to reach communities in rural Tanzania, where FGM is most common.
“MCC is supporting us to reach places we cannot visit ourselves because our budget doesn’t allow us to do so,” she said.
Ana Laizer is a success story.
When she shared what she learned about FGM’s harmful effects with her parents, they supported her choice not to undergo the procedure. Her parents are proud of her academic success, and Laizer’s father has declared all his daughters will continue their studies.
Laizer said she’d “like to see everyone get education as I get, and then when I reach my goals, if God helps me, I need to see other people be proud of their goals as I will be.”
It’s rare for parents to be so supportive, but Sumayani finds hope in the increasing number of instances of young girls saying no to FGM and child marriage.