Arusha (Tanzania) (AFP) - Hundreds of Tanzanian schoolgirls returned home Monday after spending three months hiding in safe houses to escape genital mutilation, state television said.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) can range from hacking off the clitoris to the removal of the entire female genitalia.
Some 800 school girls fled to shelters run by charities and church organisations, which offer protection during the months FGM is traditionally carried out, from October to December. Some of the shelters are given police protection to ensure the girls remain safe.
Minister of Labour and Employment Gaudensia Kabaka called on traditional leaders to use their influence to stop "this retrograde practice."
Campaigners call the dangerous practice mutilation rather than the term female circumcision, so as to make clear the dangers it involves and the harm it causes.
Apart from the intense pain itself, immediate dangers include bleeding and infection. In the longer term, risks include infertility and complications during childbirth, sometimes resulting in the death of the baby.
Some of the girls returning home explained that the safe houses were the only way they could ensure they would not be cut.
"My mother supported me, she did not want me to be cut, but my father began to beat me so I decided to come here," said one girl in tears, who had been sheltered in a centre run by the protestant church.
FGM was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998 and carries a punishment of up to 15 years in prison, but is still regularly carried out, especially in northern and central regions of the east African nation.
It continues to be carried out in secret, often in basic conditions without anaesthetic.
In November, UN chief Ban Ki-moon launched a global campaign to end FGM within a generation.
More than 125 million women have been mutilated in 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which condemns the practice as a "violation of the human rights" of women.