By Kizito Makoye
TARIME, Tanzania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Neema Maro realized her father was secretly planning to get her circumcised in her village in northwestern Tanzania, she ran away.
Like hundreds of others, she is now seeking refuge at a shelter in Masanga village, about 50 km (31 miles) from her home in Surubu in Tarime district, where girls' rights campaigners are fighting to end female genital mutilation (FGM).
For although the procedure involving the total or partial removal of external genitalia is illegal in Tanzania, FGM ceremonies are still being held in secret in parts of Tarime district, according to police trying to end the practice.
"I didn't want to experience the pain that my sister went through when she was circumcised two years ago," Maro, 17, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
"My aunt was persuading father to get me circumcised so that I can get married," she said, adding that she wanted to complete her education and become a nurse.
Up to 7.9 million girls and women in Tanzania are thought to have undergone FGM, with the procedure often carried out in initiation, or rite of passage, ceremonies.
FGM, practiced predominantly in Africa and parts of Asia, has no known health benefits and can cause complications, including hemorrhage, infection, and infertility, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The United Nations last year called for the end of harmful practices "such as child, early and forced marriage and FGM", and many African countries, including Tanzania, have banned FGM.
Yet campaigners say an increasing number of girls are being cut in secret to avoid legal action.
In Tarime, girls are usually cut between the ages of 12 and 17 in initiation ceremonies performed by circumcisers known as ngariba, often in unhygienic conditions.
Tarime District Commissioner Glorious Luoga said despite repeated police warnings, FGM ceremonies were still underway.
"As we speak, girls are being cut in different areas, and some rowdy youth mobs wielding traditional weapons are obstructing the police operation," Luoga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"I have instructed police to arrest and prosecute parents of girls who have been cut."
Mary Wandia, program manager for London-based charity Equality Now, said the law against FGM is poorly enforced in Tanzania, putting thousands of girls at risk and encouraging others from neighboring countries to travel there.
She said Kenyans living in the villages bordering Tanzania often took their girls to be cut in Tanzania.
"In Kenya, enforcement of the law is strong and therefore many are crossing the border to avoid prosecution," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by email.
Police in Tanzania and Kenya have teamed up to stop cross-border FGM activity. Officers from both countries are moving through villages to identify circumcisers and arrest them, said Tarime/Rorya Special Zone Police Commander Andrew Satta.
"We have identified a group of people who let Kenya girls cross the border into Tanzania to undergo FGM," Satta told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
With police action stepping up, local Kurya clan elders have assured authorities that no girl would be cut, adopting an alternative rite of passage ritual that involves smearing flour on teenage girls' foreheads.
"We don't want any problems with the government so we will use maize flour to signify rite of passage for our girls instead of our normal ritual," said James Nyamaka, one of the clan elders in Tarime.
(Editing by Clelia Oziel and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)