From an early age, Anna Henga saw no distinction between men and women.
Henga, who earlier this month was recognized as a 2019 International Woman of Courage by the U.S. Department of State, has dedicated her life to ending female genital mutilation (FGM) in Tanzania. Her work on behalf of women and girls stems, she says, from her unique upbringing.
“Both of my parents were civil servants,” Henga says. “We were three boys and two girls, but we were treated equally; we knew our rights.”
“It was only when I started going to school,” Henga adds, “that things were very different. I saw injustice and knew I had to do something.”
Henga, now the executive director of the Legal and Human Rights Centre, has worked with police officers, magistrates and other community leaders to advocate on behalf of women and girls and to prevent the harmful, and at times life-threatening, practice of FGM.
Although the procedure was criminalized in Tanzania in 1998, one in 10 women in 2018 underwent FGM, a trend especially pronounced in the country’s rural areas, according to a UNFPA report.
Further, FGM is a practice deeply entrenched in the country’s cultural and social norms. As a result, the effectiveness of legislation and policy often hinges on the community’s long-standing traditions.
“FGM is a process, a ritual,” Henga says. “It’s not just cutting.”
To counter this, Henga and others have advocated for Alternative Rites of Passage, an approach to FGM that involves all the same rituals but refrains from cutting young women.
Equally effective, Henga says, has been spreading awareness about the violent, traumatic nature of these procedures, visceral details often lost on community and other leaders.
“Clan elders don’t visit the sites where FGM happens,” Henga explains. “They need to see its effects: the trauma, the psychological consequences.”
It is those messages, unsettling as they are, that resonate most with community leaders and advocates.
“We really have to confront the issue,” Henga adds. “There is no medication to take away the pain.”
More concerning still is the stigma surrounding women and girls in the community who have not undergone FGM.
“Some people still believe that a ‘good girl’ is one who has been mutilated,” Henga notes. “People do not associate with those who haven’t.”
Henga explains that this sentiment, one losing traction throughout the country, is held primarily by elderly community members; the youth, in contrast, have voiced their opposition to the procedure.
“Most of the youngsters say this is ‘not for them.’”
With that in mind, Henga advises activists and other concerned community members to reach out to the youth in their neighborhoods to inform them, not just about the resources available to survivors but also about the value of women and girls in society.
“It’s a message we need to hear,” Henga says. “Even if a girl isn’t mutilated, she can still be successful and dignified.”
Henga herself has faced staunch opponents in her work to address gender-based violence in the country. In fact, clan elders often threatened her, telling her not to go to community leaders, not to tell her story.
Henga, undeterred by these provocations, simply responds: “Still I will go.”
Inspired by Anna’s work? Learn how you can stand against FGM and other forms of GBV on our Africa4Her page.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to those interviewed and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.