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Sabiny elders join the fight against female cut in Sebei sub-region

The Sabiny elders at Kween February 14. (PHOTO BY DAVID MAFABI)

KAPCHORWA – At the tender age of 14, Eve Chelimo had to escape from home to avoid being circumcised.

Among the Sabiny, Female Genital Mutilation marks the transition from childhood to adulthood, setting the stage for early marriage.

Despite the abuse and threats of banishing her from the clan, Chelimo stood her ground and refused to be circumcised even when she knew the demands of her culture – all girls have to undergo this rite of passage.

“With time, I eventually convinced my grandmother and grandfather, all traditional Sabiny, to allow me skip the rite and continue with my studies,” said Chelimo.

She explained that she is saddened when she hears harrowing stories told by women and girls who undergo the cut under the influence of cultural leaders today.

“And because the elders in my clan allowed me to skip the cut to continue with education, I believe elders in Sabiny sub-region can be used in the fight against FGM and my struggle is that we change the attitude of our elders to value our dignity, this is what the NGOs must address,” said Chelimo.

The Lifelong conditions

After the cut, these women continue to suffer in silence as they live with the repercussions of FGM. Girls as young as 12 years are scarred for life as they end up with lifelong conditions that often endanger their lives.

Statistics from the Sebei sub-region suggest that only 24% of girls aged 10 to 14 have experienced some form of genital mutilation – while 76% of women between 25 and 35 have undergone the procedure.

She explained that among the Sabiny, FGM is directly linked to marriage ability and is typically carried out on young girls below the age of 15 to make them eligible brides.

According to Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the director general of Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH] programme, an NGO involved in the fight against FGM, the cut causes serious medical complications, such as extreme pain, excessive bleeding, infections, maternal and new-born complications, and sometimes death.

She explained that those who undergo FGM are not able to enjoy family life as sexual relations with their partners are often a painful and boring experience.

According to women activists, FGM perpetuates a vicious cycle of gender inequality which the world targets to end by 2030 through Sustainable Development Goal 5, which is to achieve global equality and empower all women and girls.

Ms Dora Byamukama, former East African legislator and an FGM activist says over the past decade, sustained advocacy by a cross-section of donors, development agencies, NGOs and governments has helped raise awareness on the negative effects of FGM but that elders are stuck to the tradition.

Reports across Sebei sub-region [Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo] the biggest challenge in ending FGM is that it has always received the support of cultural elders, clan elders and leaders, who see it as a defining part of their communities’ culture.

This however this is changing with the bringing on board of the elders to assist in the fight against FGM in a meeting held at Kween local government council hall-the Sabiny Elders Forum pledge  to support all efforts to end FGM demonstrates this change.

The meeting was sponsored by The REACH programme, a Sebei based non-governmental organisation working to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) and fighting other harmful cultures that abuse women/girls’ rights.

The REACH Programme, started in 1996 as a joint venture brain child of United Nations Population Fund and government of Uganda [UNFPA/GOU] in following up on the 1994 ICPO, the purpose was to address FGM in Kapchorwa district then [now split into Kween and Bukwo.

According to the Mr Paul Machinjachi, the LCV chairman Kween district, involving elders in the fight against FGM is a good step in the right direction in the fight against FGM to save girls and women.

“The elders now want girls to go to school instead of getting married off at a young age after circumcision, these are good fruits the fight against FGM is bearing,” said Mr Machinjachi.

There is direct causality between FGM and girls’ school dropout rates, with areas where the practice is prevalent experiencing low school enrolment of girls, conversely, areas where FGM has phased out experiencing high girls’ enrolment.

A recent report by the United Nations Children’s Education Fund-UNICEF produced in collaboration with Uganda Bureau of Statistics- UBOS implicates fathers and elders for encouraging Female Genital Mutilation- FGM.

The report published in October 2017, shows that 35 percent of fathers encourage their daughters to go for FGM against 19 percent of mothers across Karamoja and Sebei sub regions.

The survey showed that Moroto district had the highest proportion of women who had undergone FGM.

The statistics are still grim to the level that overall, close to three in every ten (27%) of females surveyed stated that they had been circumcised with Moroto district 52% registering the highest proportion while Sebei sub-region had the lowest (13%)”, part of the report reads. It also indicates that the prevalence of FGM increases with age.

Mr Sam Cheptoris, an elder and former LCV for Kapchorwa says elders have now realised that addition to the drop in enrolment of girls in school, FGM causes a wide range of long–term medical complications such difficulties during childbirth, chronic genital infections, anaemia, cysts and abscesses, keloid scar, damage to the urethra resulting in urinary incontinence, dyspareunia (painful sexual intercourse) and sexual dysfunction and even infertility.

“And we are determined to fight and end it from the faces of Sebei sub-region to give our girls dignity and thanks to the awareness by The REACH programme, FGM is now criminalized,” said Mr Chelimo.

Mr Peter Kamuron told the meeting that legal and policy interventions alone are not a sufficient deterrent for FGM because as a rite of passage, FGM carries a customary significance that can only be addressed by fully involving elders in the communities that hold this rite.

He explained that in Sebei sub-region the key to change lies in transforming the perceptions and attitudes of cultural gatekeepers such as elders and traditional healers.

“We have deliberately decided to involve cultural gatekeepers of local communities and elders in efforts to end FGM today and we now declare as elders that we shall fight FGM,” said Mr Kamuron.

Like the grandmother approach by The REACH programme, this model [Use of elders to fight FGM] will produce commendable results and will serve as a blueprint for ending FGM in Sebei sub-region and Uganda at large.

The use of Elders who are responsible for passing on community knowledge across the generation is founded on the understanding that lasting and sustainable change in the eradication of FGM must first and foremost come from, and be led by the communities themselves.

Elders’ resolutions

Elders resolved that they are going to retain all the cultural celebrations surrounding a girl’s transition to womanhood but without the cut and early marriage.

That elders will offer alternative rite of passage training that sensitises local communities on the dangers of FGM, building consensus toward a collective decision to abandon it.

They resolved further that the new ritual will combine the traditional ceremony with sexual and reproductive health education, and the promotion of girls’ education.

Though the tide is turning, Ms Chelangat says given the rise in FGM between November 2018 and January 2019, more needs to be done to curb the prevalence of FGM across various communities.

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