What you need to know:
- Female Genital Mutilation is an internationally recognised violation of the human rights of girls and women and, although globally the prevalence is declining, according to Unicef survey report carried out in 2020, the practice still affects around 200 million women across the world. Barbara Nalweyiso writes about the fight against the vice in Uganda.
At the age of 20 in 2004, Zuraha Chebet, now a 38-year-old resident of Karinga A Village in Moruita Sub-county, Nakapiripirit District from Pokot community, underwent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
Following her friend’s mocking of not being a Pokot because she had not undergone FGM, that relentless ridicule prompted her to undergo the incision of her clitoris, a form of a rite of passage into adulthood among the Pokot and Sabiny, both sub-tribes of the Kalenjin ethnic group.
Chebet was mutilated with a group of 18 girls between the ages of 15 to 25 years and, of these, only five are alive. Others died due to over bleeding and lack of proper medical attention.
“We were not taken to hospital or a health centre. We were only treated with herbs. It was very painful and hard for the wound to heal. It was also hard to give birth. I have five children, but I have never had a normal delivery. During delivery, we [are] again cut by a scissor to let the baby out,” she said
Chebet is not the only one suffering with the post-FGM complications. Cecilia Apuni, a 36 -year-old resident of the same village, got cut at an even younger age and was forced to get married at the age of 15.
Due to the excessive pain, Chebet declined her daughters to undergo FGM. However, her family turned their back against her as a result.
FGM is an internationally recognised violation of the human rights of girls and women and, although globally the prevalence of FGM is declining, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) survey report carried out in 2020, the practice still affects around 200 million women across the world.
In Uganda, FGM is mostly practised in Karamoja (Amudat and Nakapiripirit districts) and Sebei (Bukwo, Kween and Kapchorwa).
In December 2016, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics (Ubos) and Unicef conducted an FGM survey to collect detailed district and sub-district level data on FGM in Uganda which targeted a representative sample of households and women aged between 15 and 49 years across six districts in eastern Uganda, including Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween and Nakapiripirit, Moroto and Amudat.
The average prevalence rate of FGM across the six districts was 26.6 percent in 2016, much higher than the national average for the same period (0.32 percent) found in the 2016 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.
The FGM district-level prevalence ranged from 13 percent in Kapchorwa District to 52 percent in Katikekile and Tapac sub-counties of Moroto District. High prevalence rates were accompanied by high awareness rates, with an average of 97 percent of women having heard of FGM.
By 2021, however, the prevalence of the banned practice had reduced, although not eliminated.
Mr Masokoyi Wassa, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Amudat District, said six cases of FGM were registered at the district, while in Bukwo District, eight cases were registered in 2021, according to the District Community Development Officer, Mr Francis Cherotwo. In Kapchorwa there was only one case reported, according to Ms Patricia Chepkwurui, the regional officer-in-charge of the child and family protection unit of Sipi Region Police.
Ms Chepkwurui said a woman underwent FGM after her husband dumped her in a house together with their children for months. ‘‘She (victim) thought she was dumped because of not being “a full woman, as she was always mocked by her in-laws.”
“Although the wife got cut, the husband never changed his mind about returning home; that’s how we got to know this FGM case resulted from gender-based violence but nowadays victims no longer want to come out and report such cases looking at it as a shame towards themselves,” she said.
Despite the ban on FGM practices, some residents continue to carry it out secretly, without any festivities as was the case in the past.
According to Ms Elizabeth Zamukunda, a legal officer at FIDA Uganda in Kapchorwa, girls tend to travel to remote areas, either alone or in small groups, to undergo the mutilation in isolated areas such as mountains and gardens.
“A teenage girl at some point will feel ready to be cut and will demand her parents to undergo FGM to become a full woman,” she said.
Ms Zamukunda adds that this increases health risks for girls and women as the practice is often performed in a rush, without paying attention sanitation.
In 2010, the organisation Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda filed a petition in the Constitutional Court seeking a declaration that the custom and practice of FGM is not in agreement with the Constitution of Uganda (1995) and violates various articles.
According to Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the director general of the Reproductive educative and community health (REACH) programme, during the registration of their organisation, the aim was to come up with a law banning FGM.
She says they worked with local leaders from village to the district chairpersons where it was passed as an ordinance. This helped them to lobby for an Act.
“In 2009, the Parliament of Uganda was able to pass the Bill, passing the law prohibiting FGM and I am very happy that our president was able to sign on it in 2010 and came in operation in the same year,” she said.
Male circumcision is among the major drivers of FGM as, according to norms, uncut women are not allowed to attend any male circumcision ceremonies because they are taken to be unclean women and not full women. In such circumstances, a man hires someone’s wife to escort him to a ceremony. While in Karamoja uncut women are not allowed to enter a kraal because they are referred to as unlucky women.
Mr John Lonyee Kiyonga, the councillor for Moruita Sub-county in Nakapiripirit District, says in 2002 the time he joined leadership, FGM was rampant. He says the practice was done openly but government intervened.
“FGM is done as a cultural norm but at a later time government came in and said, ‘no, however, much you love you your culture, there are some cultural incidents that you need to stop which are inhuman,’’ he says.
He adds: “This culture was a bit difficult to eradicate because it was enrooted into the community. We kept on talking to people about the bad practices, dangers and the rights of a person, however, most leaders were a bit fearful because they could not talk openly for fear of being voted out.”
Mr Kiyonga says when the Parliament came out with an Act in 2010; Unicef and REACH seriously stepped in intensifying the sensitisation and disseminating the new law into the public.
He adds that when most people remained adamant, they had to apply the law in exposing those who are still practising.
“Eventually, two ladies were apprehended, a parent of the girl and the one who procuring the process. They were all sentenced to a four-year punishment. After that, the culture went silent a bit. It wasn’t open but people continued practising silently,” Mr Kiyonga says. In Nakapiripirit District, FGM is only practised in Moruita Sub-county by the Kadama and Pokot people.
“Initially, when we tried to dig deep more about FGM asking why our people cut their girls, they gave us some reasons; men are always the security of the given community, so in times of drought they [men] drive their animals too far looking for pasture and water leaving the women back at home,” Mr Kiyonga says.
He adds: “For that woman not to have that desire of sex, this is how they came up to cut, they thought maybe the genitalia of the woman is the one that motivates a woman to have the heat [the desire for sex] so they had to mutilate a lady that even if the man goes to graze the animals in a far place about like 100 kilometres plus, this women will stay at home safely without having an affair with another men’’.
“It continued like that and once the woman wants a child, she has to leave home to go and look for a husband in the grazing area; she gets a baby and comes back home. So in that process, it became a culture and it became a very serious culture in their community whereby when that practice is done, there are a lot of issues associated with it. The father mobilises the resources for the ceremony brewing beer, honey for elders and the celebrations last for three days.
“By the time the law came in and they saw the seriousness of the law, they abandoned the celebrations. You may find that a mother goes to mutilate her daughter in the garden and stays there until the girl heals,” Mr Kiyonga says.
Cross-border FGM is also becoming increasingly common given the perceived weaker anti-FGM law enforcement at the border with Kenya.
In Sebei, where elder married women are increasingly likely to undergo FGM, the practice is often performed by traditional birth attendants (TBAs) during antenatal visits or at childbirth.
Mr Henry Chesakit Kabwamba, the cultural leader of Sebei region and Bukwo District representative for older persons, says their girls cannot get married to men in the central, Busoga and Teso sub-regions, as they are discriminated.
However, social norms and strong peer pressure limit girls’ ability to make free and independent choices about FGM. The influence of friends and other women in the community emerged as a particularly strong factor in the decision to undergo FGM.
According to the latest Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS) data (2016), the prevalence of FGM in Uganda remains one of the lowest in East Africa at 0.3 percent among women aged between 15 and 49 years.
FGM primarily affects disadvantaged women from poor households, who have low levels of education. However, national prevalence rates are not representative of the whole country due to high geographical variation.
In 2019, according to Mr Joseph Lobot Nangole, the chairperson of Kween District, the practice grew more prevalent and was publicly done with little fear. Consequently, within a short period of two months, more than 500 women got cut in public.
Mr Kiyonga narrates that when the girl is not mutilated, she feels a lot of stigma from those who have been mutilated.
“These women cannot enter into the kraal to milk, they cannot associate with those who have already been mutilated, every time they are abused because they still have their genitalia. This is what forces other ladies to go and mutilate,” he says.
“They go and do it in a hidden place after the law has come in; they do it in the gardens and in the caves. We come to a place where there are a lot of caves of mountain Kadama and when that person heals, she comes out in the community,” Mr Kiyonga says.
He says they are now liaising with the health workers to have the statistics and about 2,880 women are all cut in Moruita Sub-county.
“The mutilation of the Pokot is worse to what we know, for the Sebei it is a bit mild, the Pokots cut the genitalia and the other sides of the private parts of the woman. Now it gives a scar that even penetration by a man is a problem. This scar during giving birth is also a problem so before they knew about giving birth in the health centres, they would cut the scar to allow the baby to come out,” he says.
Ms Tina Cheptoyek, the senior probation and welfare officer in Kapchorwa District, says while the government enacted the anti-FGM Act, there are still gaps in the law. For example, whistle blowers are not protected.
“Sebei is a small ethnic group, more so in the three communities of Kapsinda, West Division and Kaptanyar. The whistle blowers say when you speak out, they easily notice who gave out information [to authorities],” she says.
“So, I would request the government of Uganda to make an amendment to the FGM Act of 2010 so that whistle blowers are protected. Remember for the police to take any statement, they will need a witness and therefore your name will appear in the police file and when it comes to court, the witness will appear in the court dock and, therefore, after the court, the whole community will go again st the whistleblower,” Ms Cheptoyek says.
There is a need to allocate a budget to the cultural institutions, Ms Cheptoyek adds, arguing that the cultural institutions are the custodians of cultures.
“In Sebei, they don’t have a cultural leader, only elders. If the government puts money in this forum, the Sebei region will be able to get a leader whom people can listen to and do what he is asked to do,” she says.
Ms Cheptoyek also recommends that the government constructs a secondary school in every sub-county to end illiteracy.
Jarib Chelimo, a Senior Five student at Kapchorwa Secondary School, and a resident of Kamukulya Village, says most of the children end in primary school. He adds that there are few parents who can afford the boarding section.
“We have a problem of forced early marriages; children at the age of 14 after primary with no hope of joining secondary school are forced to get married. They are forced to get married to people they don’t even love,” Chelimo says.
Mr Moses Cherop, the Kapsinda Sub-county chairperson, says they have few public primary schools.
“Pupils walk more than 20 kilometres to access a nearby public primary school. We don’t have graduates in this area because of not having schools. We only have like six primary schools, including public and private schools, with no secondary school in a sub-county. The private schools are expensive and most of them stop at Primary Four giving us a challenge to end the women genital cutting,” he says.
Mr Cherop adds that residents are ignorant because they are neither educated nor sensitised. The government officials only do sensitisation in urban areas where FGM is less practised.
Ms Cheptoyek recommends that the government adds more funds to the institutions in order to end FGM.
Mr George Kiprotich, the director of Kapchorwa Civil Society Organisation Association, says they are trying to engage their counterparts in the neighbouring country ensuring the minimisation of cross-border FGM, which happens when girls cross to Kenya for “circumcision” and come back when they are healed.
“The reason why there is this movement is that we do not have harmonised laws [on FGM] in the East African Community. In Kenya, they have the laws but [the implementation of the laws] is not harmonised [with that of Uganda]. In Kenya, they have a commission and in Uganda we don’t have the commission,” he says.
“I would call upon the government to come up with a policy that will help in the implementation of FGM act and also come up with a commission that will handle the issues of FGM directly,” Mr Kiprotich adds.
However, the State Minister for Gender, Labour and Social Development, Ms Peace Mutuuzo, while officiating at a Sabiny Cultural Day event on December 21, 2021 at Amanang Primary School, said there is no need for Uganda to form an anti-FGM commission to end the vice. Instead, she says government should invest more energy in sensitising the community.
“We need to do a lot of sensitisation on mindset change and we are starting it now. We are going to advocate for school establishment and vocational studies in those areas where FGM is still being practised. We are going to factor in GBV/FGM into our budgets, institutions operations and structures,” Ms Mutuuzo said.
She said they are encouraging women to do other income activities than cutting women
Ms Anna Chepureto, a 46-year-old surgeon, a resident of Jombe Parish in Amudat District, says the government pledged to aid surgeons with money to create other sources of income; however, three years down the road the government never fulfilled its pledge.
“We urge the government to fulfil its promises made to all mutilators to enable us all move in the right track by abandoning the act. A mutilator used to earn Shs15,000 per girl, sensitising the mutilators to abandon the act without them setting up other sources of income,” she says.
With the government stuck to its guns on implementation, financially-constrained to enforce the law, and lacking the political will to sensitise members of the public or build schools that train the new generation of citizens that don’t condone FGM, it remains to be seen whether Uganda’s current methods will eventually help to get rid of the banned practice.
According to Sgt Nathan Chelimo, the police community liaison officer at Kapchorwa Police Station, the law enforcement agency always faces a challenge of tracking down the FGM main actors due to inadequate resources.
“It is very difficult to track down the mutilators since they do it secretly.
In most cases we use the informers but sometimes they also ask for money and occasionally we receive information about places where mutilation will be done and when, but because police work on its own, at times it happens when we do not have fuel to reach these places and do the arrest,” he said.
Sgt Chelimo maintains that in Kapsinda and Cheptuyar sub-counties, there are poor roads making it difficult for police to reach.
*This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.