When a group of elderly Tanzanian women asked Martha Daud to start circumcising girls 30 years ago, she was honoured as it meant she would earn money, status and choice cuts of meat.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) was a rite of passage Daud had watched numerous girls undergo and the community valued the old women who wielded the razor blades, especially those who didn’t kill too many girls.
“I was selected by the older women to do it because I was seen as being bold,” the 59-year-old grandmother told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recalling her initiation into the illegal trade in Tanzania’s northern Kilimanjaro region.
“When I cut a girl I would receive (money)… and be given a tail of the cow that had been slaughtered to eat as part of the celebration,” she said.
Each cut earned her 30,000 Tanzanian shillings ($13).
— Crowd2Map Tanzania (@Crowd2Map) August 19, 2017
FGM, which involves the partial or total removal of the external genitalia, can be fatal when girls bleed to death or become infected. Others may have complications when they give birth later in life.
Daud is one of many Tanzanian circumcisers to have abandoned the age-old practice under pressure from the government and rights groups, who believe this will help reduce FGM rates in the east African nation.
“I have realized it is a sin and now I pray for God to forgive me,” she said.
Almost 8 million Tanzanian women and girls are estimated to have been cut – usually between the ages of 12 and 17 – by circumcisers, who are known as ngariba.
— Waris Dirie (@Waris_Dirie) January 2, 2017
The ceremonies, often in unhygienic conditions, are shrouded in secrecy to evade the law.
When Daud was a girl, FGM was almost universal in her Maasai community. She was circumcised before being married off at the age of 15.
“We were happy to be cut because we wanted to get married,” she said, adding that uncircumcised women were viewed with suspicion as it was believed they would abandon their husbands.
“I was given away at that age so my mother could get a good bride price of five cows and a plot of land,” she said referring to the dowry paid by her husband’s family.
— Honor Diaries (@HonorDiaries) August 16, 2017
Finding other sources of income
Daud stopped cutting girls after the Network against Female Genital Mutilation (NAFGEM) taught her about the risks of FGM and encouraged her to find another source of income.
She now owns a shop selling Maasai beadwork and household goods and spends her free time preaching against FGM, including in schools where she encourages teenage girls to resist the cut.
“I tell them the consequences of cutting,” she said.
“I also explain about the law, which has helped reducing the rate of the cutting because now people fear.”
— Debbie (@Debbie53454792) August 12, 2017
As money is one of the main drivers of FGM, activists teach circumcisers business skills, as well as getting them to support each other with the difficult career transition.
“FGM is still taking place because it is a big source of income for the cutters,” said Valerian Mgani, a project manager with the Association for the Termination of Female Genital Mutilation (ATFGM).
“We want to see more ngaribas dropping their knives.”
The charity has taught about 60 circumcisers weaving, embroidery and farming, giving them 500,000 Tanzanian shillings ($224) each as startup capital.
“Cutting girls pays but I think taking a legally recognized job pays even more,” said another ex-circumciser, Anita Nyangi.
“I have seen many girls die due to bleeding and I said ‘enough is enough,'” the 48-year-old said in a phone interview from her home in Tarime District, near the border with Kenya.
Nyangi now makes moisturisers from local perfumes and sesame oil, batik and sweaters.
“I have learnt many skills,” she said. “Even if one business fails I can switch to another.”