When she was only 8 years old, Ghati was sold by her older brother to a 55-year-old man, who put the orphan girl on a motorcycle and rode to his house near Musoma, Tanzania. There the man raped her.
After two weeks of daily assaults, Ghati escaped while the man was working in his fields. On the path to the local village, she met a young woman and appealed for help. The woman, who had legal training, advised Ghati to return to the house and wait until she could come for her that evening. When the woman arrived that night, she brought the police, who confronted the man. “Oh, no,” the man said. “She’s just my house girl.”
“But you call me your wife,” Ghati said. The man was arrested and eventually sentenced to prison.
Ghati, a pseudonym to protect her identity, was taken to the city of Musoma, on the shore of Lake Victoria, and placed in a shelter under the care of the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa.
“What the center does is support vulnerable children,” says Sister Annunciata Chacha, the director of the shelter called Jipe Moyo, a Swahili term meaning “To Give Heart.” Jipe Moyo, a program of the Musoma diocese, cares for children who have been living on the street, children who run away from domestic violence, children who flee from female genital mutilation (FGM), which is sometimes called female circumcision, and girls escaping from child marriages.
“They bring them here to Jipe Moyo,” Sister Chacha says. At the center, the children receive care, counseling and education. “We provide shelter, school materials, food, medicine, clothing, shoes, everything.”
Jipe Moyo shelters 70 minors, most of whom are girls, some as young as 2 years old, who’ve been orphaned or abandoned. One 5-year-old girl was found sleeping on a garbage dump after being kicked out of her house by her stepmother. More than a dozen boys at the center were rescued from the streets. Jipe Moyo also supports more than 50 children at area boarding schools. A few have gone on to college.
The center’s location in north central Tanzania is no coincidence. The Mara Region of Tanzania, of which Musoma is the capital, has some of that country’s highest rates of child marriage and female genital mutilation, even though both are technically illegal in Tanzania.
In the Mara Region, 55 percent of marriages involve minors under the legal age of 18; many of those involve girls as young as 12 or 13, says Liz Mach, a Maryknoll lay missioner who works as assistant director of the office of Planning and Development for the Musoma Diocese. That figure compares with 37 percent of marriages involving minors nationally in the East African country.
Similarly, 44 percent of girls in the Mara Region are subjected to genital mutilation, compared with 15 percent nationally, Mach says.
“So we have child marriages, we have domestic abuse, we have kids running from FGM, we have trafficking of kids, we’ve got everything, and it all comes under that one big umbrella of gender-based violence,” says Mach, a nurse, who with 44 years in East Africa is Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ longest-serving active missioner. Much of her work, especially in the last decade, has centered on helping women and combating gender-based violence.
Mach notes that part of the reason for the high rates of FGM and child marriages in the Mara area is ethnic and cultural: the dominant ethnic group in the area, the Kuria people, have traditionally practiced FGM as a rite of passage for young girls, making them eligible for marriage. This leads to early marriages and girls as young as 12 becoming pregnant. That results in a high mortality rate for these would-be mothers. For survivors, it can mean painful, long-term and potentially life-threatening health problems. “Body wise, they are not ready at all” for pregnancy, she says.
Among other ethnic groups in Tanzania, such as the Luo and the Sukuma peoples, the practice of cutting is not part of their cultures, she says. “They don’t do FGM, but the abuse of girls and the use of girls sexually is very, very high,” she says.
However, gender-based violence, mostly against women in various forms, isn’t limited to Tanzania or to East Africa, Mach says. It occurs around the world, including in the United States, where underage marriage remains an issue. According to a 2017 PBS Frontline report that surveyed state marriage records between 2000 and 2015, children as young as 12 or 13 had been allowed to marry in various U.S. states. And the World Health Organization estimates that annually 3 million girls around the world face genital mutilation in 30 different countries.
At Jipe Moyo, 17-year-old Mwita says she ran away from home to avoid female mutilation, which her stepfather was insisting that she undergo. “My mom didn’t want me to pass through that stage, but the tribe says that every child must pass that stage,” says Mwita. “So when I tell my mom I won’t do it, she refused to hear me because she knew she would be beaten or even divorced.”
Distressed at the prospect of being cut, Mwita confided to her school headmistress, who with the school social worker brought the girl to Jipe Moyo. Today, Mwita is continuing her studies and hopes to become a doctor. Her mother occasionally visits her, but only in secret for fear of being beaten by her husband. Mwita has no contact with the rest of her family.
Even when both the mother and father are against cutting their daughters, the parents can be overruled by other males in the family, such as an uncle or grandfather, Mach says. She cites the case of three girls whose parents brought them to Jipe Moyo. “They were 6, 7 and 9 at the time, and they were brought in to us for protection because the father said, ‘I cannot protect my own children.’ ”
Mach credits Musoma’s Bishop Michael Msonganzila with leading the effort to counter FGM in the area.
“When he was just being installed as bishop in 2008, he made a stand against female genital mutilation,” she says. The bishop called on elders in the Mara Region to end FGM, and he inaugurated rescue camps to prevent girls from being cut while home during school breaks in November and December.
The first rescue camp in 2008 had 53 girls, Mach says. Last December more than 600 girls were under protection. The turnout for the camps is a sign of progress on the issue of FGM. “They’re brought in by their parents,” Mach says.
Sister Chacha says despite the horrors Jipe Moyo’s children have escaped, the situation is slowly improving in the area, in part because of educational efforts of the diocese, including educating students and teachers through in-school seminars and outreach workshops for village and community leaders.
Mach, who is writing a book on gender-based violence, drawing on her experience in East Africa, says her role now is mostly administrative, writing grant proposals and supporting the work of the sisters and the diocese.
“They’re running all the programs,” she says. “It’s the bishop. It’s our priests. We have some great young priests. We have some great young sisters. We have some great young women who are working in our projects.”
But, Mach says, credit really belongs to courageous young girls such as Mwita and Ghati who are standing up and saying “no” to FGM and to child marriages.
“These girls are standing up and they’re going against their parents, they’re going against their culture. They’re the brave ones,” she says. “We wouldn’t be able to make any inroads if we didn’t have them doing that.”
This article is from the May-June 2020 issue of Maryknoll magazine.