I am Monica, a happily married woman and a mother of three. I am a proud Maasai from Kilindi, Tanzania. Our tribe is rich in amazing cultures that have been preserved for many centuries. I like the respect we have for our elders, our colourful bibs and clothes, our language and even the natural beauty that God granted us. However, one thing troubles me, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting ( FGM/C). This, among other challenges our community faces, lead me to social work studies at the university.
It’s my passion to improve the health and wellbeing of the community by empowering girls and young women. I want to see them at a higher level and not the level they are in right now. I feel like they need to be educated in order to be more independent and to be confident in themselves.
Why did you start working as an End FMG/C champion?
In my community, the FGM/C practice has been very common. The practice comes alongside many other challenges for the lives of girls and women. As they get cut, most of them drop out of school and are then married off at a very young age. Actually, the cut justifies the marriage no matter at what age. Often, the girls become pregnant and some of them die while giving birth. This has been so heartbreaking, as in my view, the cut is not necessary. I took the decision to speak about this with people in my community, but I noticed the hesitation in their eyes right away. That’s when I decided that I wanted to change the state of affairs in my community. I started to raise my voice in order to raise awareness and break the taboo.
The road I took wasn’t always easy. I noticed that the community rejected my talks at first. You see in Tanzania when you challenge someone’s culture you are touching the heart of the community. Our pride and uniqueness lies in our culture, so stopping a practice that has been in the community for many years, is not accepted easily. People were talking behind my back. They said that I had lost my mind and my culture because I went to university and they tried to scare the girls by saying this would happen to them if they follow my path.
But I never gave up.
I knew I had to start with our elderly leaders as they are very influential in the Maasai community. I knew I had to convince them first. I told them stories about FGM and why it is bad for women. I even showed them a video because they didn’t know anything about the practice. I showed them results from other communities in Tanzania that don’t perform the cut. Those villages have female nurses, teachers and doctors, all because they let their girls go to school, to university and to follow their dreams. I told them that our girls are staying behind and that they are being left behind.
Changing a tradition within a culture is not something that happens in one day. It took me many years to be understood, for others to share my point of view. And that’s where I met Amref Health Africa and became an End FGM/C champion.
Can you talk about your work as a champion?
I started working with Amref six years ago. They noticed that I was successfully speaking to the elders about ending FGM/C. They helped and trained me to become a champion and to also reach the most remote villages in my country.
Because of Amref Health Africa, I could achieve more. The community already trusted them because of the ARP WASH project. It provides safe and clean drinking water first and then starts talks on sensitive topics. Now, six years down the road, I have become very successful in my educational talks with every person in the community. From elders, to leaders, to girls and boys. And I can really see the changes happening.
How did COVID-19 affect your area?
During COVID I wasn’t able to reach all the girls. We couldn’t organize meetings, everybody was staying at home and schools were closed. I heard that many girls went through the cut. This really frustrated me because I don’t want to see the girls suffering. I phoned people in my community the whole day. I wanted to be in close contact with all the village elders so they could inform their people about the rights of girls. Many of them promised to keep a close eye on all the girls. I usually visit only one village at a time for my door-to-door education campaign but I left my phone number at all the households so they could reach me all day or all night if they were facing any problems. Going door-to-door also allowed me to see with my own eyes that the girls were healthy and when I suspected a girl was at risk, I called the local Community Health Worker or village chief. I also received many calls from girls who were scared that they were getting circumcised. Amref decided to step in and helped me by organizing a radio show for me. I reached thousands of people and villages in remote areas by radio broadcast.
Luckily for us, the lockdown didn’t take long. In most places, we were back on track after a month or three and schools reopened again.
How did COVID-19 affect the lives of girls?
A lot of people were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Many men lost their jobs because they work in the tourism industry on Zanzibar Island. The men came home because there was nothing to do and frustrations in some households got serious. The men started drinking alcohol and beating their wives. Young girls were at risk because they ran away from home and then got raped on the streets. It was challenging to control them.
Quite recently, I took in one girl who is 9 years old. She was living in a very unsafe situation. Her father didn’t want her to go back to school and her sister was already married off. I was doing my household visits when she came to me and asked if I could help her. I organized an intervention and talked to the father and tried to convince him to send his daughter to school. I explained that she needed education in order to make something out of her life. She would be left behind if he lets her only do the chores in the household and not go to school. I couldn’t convince him so I proposed to take in the girl and he approved. She is a proud student in class 5 now and doing so well.
What or who inspires you?
My other champions motivate me. They are so inspiring. They have done so much. Especially a Kenyan Maasai woman called Nice Nailantei who is the true definition of a role model. She has come from far away and accomplished so much. She always inspires me to do more, to give more and to never give up.
She has a safe house for girls called A Nice Place (a safe home for girls who have run away from FGM/C). I wish for something like that for our girls in Kilindi. And to educate more girls.
What is your ambition?
I dream of a world without any pain and no more circumcision. I wish to see girls in Tanzania grow up to be teachers, doctors, nurses, engineers, pilots, whatever is their dream. They can become anything and everything they want and not just to be married off as young as 15 years of age.
What is your message for girls all around the world?
Let’s raise our voice for education. You, as a girl, have the right to education. And nobody has the right to cut you, do not be afraid, stand up for your rights.