MBALE – She didn’t have to go through the cut to better understand the painful experience associated with female genital mutilation (FGM).
Ms Beatrice Chelangat’s inspiration to join this mission was sparked by a woman, whose story of pain after going through FGM and being forced to get married at the age of 15, got her questioning her purpose of existence.
Besides the psychological pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing the procedure, women also experience painful urination brought about by the obstruction of the urethra and recurrent urinary tract infections.
They go through painful menstruation, irregular menses and difficulty in passing menstrual blood to the level that they develop a scar in their private parts.
Ms Chelangat revealed that the consequences are appalling and that along with an education and childhood cut short, girls suffer a traumatic initiation into sexual relationships, are put at risk of domestic violence and STI’s, and have the chance of a career or better life taken away.
A trained social scientist from Makerere University, Ms Chelangat did not look for a job like others, she just kept her degree certificate at home in Kapchorwa and started Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH], an NGO to end FGM and help girls to begin a new life.
Ms Chelangat says that every time she closes her eyes, she hears girls screaming for help, she sees innocent young girls being forced by their parents to undergo FGM.
“And I speak to myself; I promise you, I will not just shed tears for the injustices you are facing. I will reach out to every homestead in Sebei to end FGM and ensure young girls get the dignity they deserve,” Ms Chelangat says.
“I thought to myself, I wasn’t making much of an impact while at school in Makerere University, thus I needed something that could make a difference in the lives of other girls and women going through this FGM nightmare,” she adds.
Ms Chelangat is an anti-FGM champion in Kapchorwa, Kween, Bukwo and Amudat districts and the director General of Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH], an NGO that is involved in the fight against FGM says she listens every year to these harrowing stories from young girls.
This is a position she has held for the last 26 years, and which she has used to liberate girls and women in the region, from the fangs of FGM and early marriages.
Apart from her regular duties which include technical work, writing proposals and meeting with donors, she the visits to grassroots and participating in the one on one liberation missions is something she holds dearly.
They walk from village to village, sensitizing the community about the health implications of FGM and inspire young girls to stay in school to avoid childhood marriages.
“We also give refuge to girls who run from their homes to escape being circumcised or being married off, we have built national safety centre for female survivors from the brutal practice in Kapchorwa town,” she adds.
The sh90m national safety centre, whose construction started in 2010, was funded by the Government and the Netherlands Embassy.
Ms Chelangat, explained that the centre serves Kapchorwa, Kween, Amudat, Nakapiripirit, Moroto and Bugiri districts; where the practice is still existent.
The REACH programme has teamed up with the government of Uganda to put up anti-FGM schools in Kween and Amudat districts to offer education for girls who have fled FGM.
“This is besides holding other small sensitisation campaigns in the communities where we teach them about dangers of FGM, avoiding early marriages, basic hygiene and communication skills, among other things,” Ms Chelangat says.
This anti-FGM mission has taken them to different communities within Kapchorwa, Kween, Bukwo, Amudat districts including Bugiri where a section of the Sabiny are living, and in the process, more than 1000 girls have benefitted from the programme.
The REACH programme has played a major role in demystifying myths about FGM, reducing cases of the vice, and dealing a blow to early marriage perpetrators and as a result, more local girls have completed their education.
Ms Chelangat said that besides reaching out to young girls, they have also reached out to the married women who are being forced by their husbands to get circumcised.
“Just last year we rescued a woman in Kwosir sub-county in Kween district whose house was burnt by her husband allegedly for refusing to undergo FGM, we built for a her a new house, put iron sheets and encouraged and counseled her,” explains Ms Chelangat.
She explained that as REACH programme, they have cultivated a culture of giving back to the community, and in the process, seen a significant number of girls who have benefitted from the project come back to offer their services as volunteers in the REACH programme.
She revealed that the REACH programme has now started a skills training school at the rescue to equip girls with skills such that when they live the centre they are job creators and not job seekers.
It, however, has not been a walk in the park for Ms Chelangat who has had to navigate through many challenges.
Even when government has put in place comprehensive legal and policy frameworks that support prohibition of FGM like the prohibition of FGM act 2010, Guidelines for prevention and response to FGM and FGM regulations 2013, these have not seen an end to FGM.
“This tradition is still entrenched in this part of the country, and the main challenge has been convincing the locals otherwise,” she explains.
Then there is the trauma that comes with handling most of the cases and even when the outcome is relatively “smooth,” the physical and psychological effects continue throughout a woman’s life—affecting her, her intimate partner, and entire communities.
Ms Chelangat laments about the slow pace of court cases against perpetrators, a fact that has seen them drag for years or most of the perpetrators given presidential pardon.
She said the legal strategy against FGM has involved three landmark efforts: A Constitutional Court petition against FGM as a cultural practice; a by-law against the practice by Kapchorwa district local government; and a national law outlawing the practice. The district ordinance made FGM optional in 2009, before the Prohibition of FGM Act outlawed it altogether in 2010.
“And since the law came into effect, two cases had been prosecuted in the Kapchorwa Chief Magistrates Court, and five people were convicted and sentenced to between two-three years in prison. In 2015, the convicts were pardoned by the president,” explains Ms Chelangat.
She said the biggest challenge in the implementation of the Prohibition of FGM Act (2010) is that a section of the Sabiny apparently still strongly cherish the practice and continue to cut the girls in hiding and have a strong feeling that the law is too harsh.
Ms Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Uganda parliament while attending the 20th anniversary of Sabiny Culture day in Kween described the FGM practice as outdated and that FGM violates girls’ and women’s basic human rights, denying them of their physical and mental integrity, their right to freedom from violence and discrimination, and in the most extreme case, of their life.
The REACH programme strategy:
The REACH Programme plans to double activity impact by 2022 and this goal will contribute to vision 2040 and both MGLSD goals and to the 2012 UN resolutions pledge to ban-FGM worldwide by 2030. In pursuit of this goal, REACH will work towards realizing the following indicators over the next 5 years.
Ms Chelangat says they will Increase annual major outreaches from 200 in 2016 to 400per year by 2022 at national level, 50% coverage of women below 40 years in rural areas with FGM and child marriage prevention messages in Busoga, Sabiny and Karamoja region.
“In this strategy, 50% of all school children will be reached with FGM and child marriage prevention messages using video/drama and music targeting rural populations,” said Ms Chelangat.
The REACH programme is now focused on community-level advocacy based on highlighting the dangers of FGM and how it violates the human rights of women and girls, and promoting the positive aspects of Sabiny culture and girl-child education, among other things.
Mr Frank Mangusho, the programme manager at REACH programme says the grandmothers underwent training to enable them understand their roles and expectations in the campaign to end FGM/C and Child Marriage and that this was after UNICEF had trained REACH about the approach in 2011.
He revealed that the grandmothers’ approach looks at the cross/inter-generation communication with an aim of changing behaviors.
“And in Uganda, REACH programme adopted the approach from Senegal where it was first introduced in the fight against FGM/C in 2009 and a concept to localise it was developed and piloted in 2012 and in 2013, the pilot was undertaken with REACH in Amudat and Nakapiripirit districts. The initiative was then expanded in 2014/2015 and it is bearing good results,” said Mr Mangusho.
As of now, despite the challenges, Ms Chelangat shows no signs of relenting in her fight, adding that her satisfaction is to see more girls, not just in Sebei sub-region, but all over Uganda where FGM takes place, get help to better their lives in future.
Advocacy at the community level should be refreshed with new messages and champions, to specifically target male and female elders who are deep rooted in the culture of FGM.
There is need to build the capacity of community-based groups in the human rights implications of FGM and in advocacy skills.
Short-term interventions, such as enforcement of the law should be implemented hand in hand with long-term solutions, such as the education of the girl child.
Health workers need to be sensitized about the right to health, as well as about the anti-FGM law for them to understand their roles and responsibilities.