BUKWO – A picture of a haggard Regina Cherotich, 63, sitting at the veranda of her hut in Riwo sub-county, Riwo village in Bukwo district brings tears to your eyes.
Cherotich, weak and frail, softly describes how she has been a Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting [FGM/C] for the last about 40 years but has nothing to show for it.
The renowned FGM surgeon across Bukwo and mother of four who looks frail and seems to be getting weaker every day but says she is well with a twinge of poverty and sadness written all over her face.
Her mud and wattle house does not only leak but it is also dilapidated with the sticks used for building it, seen from outside, it is bent because it has stood a long time without being repaired and risks collapsing
Behind the hut is a bush; an almost dead silence only interrupted by birds chirping and distant noise from wild trees in the area.
This is Cherotich home where more than six people live. It serves as a kitchen, store, chicken house and a bedroom for Cherotich and her husband who is physically disabled and unable to do any physical work.
Cherotich underwent female genital mutilation (FGM] in 1980, and later turned into a traditional surgeon.
And although she has been circumcising since 1982 and earning Shs 20,000, goats and several gifts from the parents of the girls, she has nothing to show for all her 40 year effort of circumcising girls.
“This act seems to be cursed, it is not in line with God, we are abusing our girls and that is why I stopped it because even the money you get just disappears. You can receive money after circumcising but it goes very fast,” said Ms Cherotich.
Cherotich is just one among the many FGM surgeons in rural Sebei region who are sinking in poverty even when they have been earning from circumcising girls across the Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts.
More typically, however the FGM surgeons many of whom are dropping the practice, describe a similar situation of poverty and no source of income
In rural areas of Sebei, many surgeons who have abandoned the practice are the worst hit by chronic poverty, are the most illiterate, the most involved in superstitions without gainful employment and yet bear the brunt of bringing up children and ensuring they prepare them for marriage.
Cherotich says that too often, the first message she received about her body is that it was imperfect and from the old women, the message was that, to be accepted by the wider community, their bodies had to be cut, altered and even reshaped through FGM.
“I grew up fearing abuses insults from the community. I was told it was a shame to be an uncircumcised girl. I believed no man would marry me if I didn’t cut. So I did it and this is what we tell young girls to coarse them into accepting FGM,” says Cherotich, from her home in Riwo village, in Bukwo district.
She explained that despite the grave risks, we convince everyone to view it as an integral part of their cultural and ethnic identity, and some perceive it as a religious obligation.
She added “later I became a surgeon but I have given up the practice; the only source of living I had, we have joined The Reach program to sensitise our girls against FGM, and we are asking government to come to our rescue,” said Cherotich.
Mr Robert Cherop, the Reach program deputy director agrees that the surgeons who abandoned the practice are living deplorable conditions across Sebei region.
“There is need to help them start a living outside cutting girls, government should actually help them in order to have a successful fight against FGM/C because they are likely to sneak back to the practice which is regarded as a rite to womanhood here,” said Mr Cherop.
He explained that The Reach program is designing new strategies to engage them as teachers of culture and alternative means of rite of passage in the communities in order to fight FGM.
“They are also going to teach girls how to be responsible, mannered, how to respect their husbands, in-laws and how to be hardworking women without necessary undergoing FGM,” he added.
Ms Harriet Aseko, Kapchorwa District Community Development Officer says although FGM has been shown to have many harmful effects, both physical and emotional, the practice is sustained by social perceptions, including that girls will face shame, social exclusion and diminished marriage prospects, if they forego the practice. These perceptions must change.
She adds in Sebei [Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts] girls grew up in fear, “fear of the unknown, fear of shame, fear of abuse from the community and fear that you will have no husband when you don’t undergo FGM,” said Ms Aseko.
Although the old tradition “Wonsetap Koruk? (Female Genital Mutilation) has come a long way, it is still mysterious and disturbing how a Sabiny girl takes a brave decision to face this crude knife.
She revealed that among the Sabiny, FGM is an alternative rite of passage for all girls to cross to womanhood and that according to the Sabiny culture; FGM/C is the only means by which girls are prepared for marriage.
AIP Fatina Chebet, he officer in charge of family and child protection says that female cutting is so much embedded in Sebei‘s culture even when there are more humane rites of passage that the entire community can embrace.
She explained that the cultural roots of female genital cutting are embedded in Sabiny community that parents believe is the best thing for their daughters and that girls often want to be circumcised so that they will be fully accepted by their culture.
She explained that circumcision in Sebei culture marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood and added that in order to encourage people to move away from FGM, there is need to develop an alternative rite of passage, in which the girl experiences all the elements of the ceremony but is not cut.
She noted that although the government of Uganda banned FGM in 2010, the symbolic ceremony is still being practiced; perpetrators circumvent the laws and systems that have been put in place to end FGM.
“This is a worrying trend as enforcement of the law on Uganda’s porous borders remains a challenge. FGM practice even when it is part of our culture is not right. Why are we still ‘cutting’ our sisters yet men now want to marry ‘uncut girls?” asked Ms Chebet.
She called for popular alternative rites to womanhood and strong partnership with members of the community to end the practice of FGM.
“Ending FGM should not be perceived as a threat to our culture. As Sabiny community, we should now advocate alternative rites that are also embedded in the same culture because they are considered “better” and in doing this we are giving our community something to replace FGM/C with, this change can be permanent,” Ms Chebet added.
This was during the Baseline survey conducted by The Reproductive Education and Community Health program [The Reach program] in order to create awareness on the dangers of FGM and Gender Based Violence on Kapchorwa-Suam road project area.
The project was awarded to The Reach program, an local NGO that has been fighting FGM, GBV and HIV/Aids in Sebei and Karamoja sub-regions by Uganda National Roads Authority.
At Ngangata sub-county in Kapchorwa districts, activists said it will be impossible to eradicate FGM if the government does not address a root cause of its prevalence in the Sebei sub-region.
They asked The Reach programme to carry on drama performances and education to create awareness on FGM in their communities to declare the abandonment of FGM within two years. And if we can end it here in Ngangata, then we could end it in the entire district and even end it everywhere,” said Elder Nathan Chemonges.
In Kween the elders resolved that FGM was a destructive tradition and started a determined effort to support its abandonment, but added that not all aspects of the FGM/C ceremony are bad;the preparation of girls into womanhood would continue under the guidance of old women.
Mr George Magunda, the RDC Kapchorwa said they can maintain positive cultural values like singing, dancing and feasting by organizing Sabiny Cultural Days instituted to promote healthy traditions and to dispel myths about these harmful practices.
He revealed that it is education, not genital cutting that should be the new alternative for measuring the value of girls and women in their community.
Mr Stephen Anguria, Bukwo Elders Forum chairman said the women must know their rights and cultures that usher them into adulthood without circumcision adding that the practice is most common among illiterate families.
He said although there is a law prohibiting FGM, the practice s till persists among the rural illiterate Sabiny communities across the country but that they as elders are seeking new ways of rite of passage without FGM.
“We need massive sensitisation and education to end this,” said Mr Anguria.
Ms Beatrice Chelangat, he Director General of The Reach program, an NGO that has been fighting FGM since 1996 says where it is practiced, FGM is supported by both men and women; usually without question but that the reasons for the practice are often rooted in Gender inequality.
She revealed that in Sebei, it is carried out to control women’s and girls’ sexuality and that it is sometimes a prerequisite for marriage – and is closely linked to child marriage.
“But whatever the reason behind it, FGM violates the human rights of women and girls and deprives them of the opportunity to make critical, informed decisions about their bodies and lives which we are determined to end,” said Ms Chelangat..
Ms Chelangat says baseline survey findings by The REACH program attest to the need for social research on ways to involve men in the promotion of FGM/C abandonment, building on their apparent openness to social change.
The Reach program that won a contract to from Uganda National Roads Authority to undertake awareness creation on dangers of FGM and gender based violence (GBV) on Kapchorwa-Suam road project AREA also adds that investigation is also needed on ways to marshal women’s social networks for offsetting their extended family roles in sustaining FGM/C practices.
Elders’ resolutions during the baseline survey
Mr Peter Kamuron, the former council Member of Parliament for Sebei says that they have 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.
He explained that the 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 and having workshops every three months to groom the young generation, instill values of discipline and leadership, and to help to preserve cultural norms.
Mr Kamuron said the workshops will also provide opportunities for knowledge transfer, especially through apprenticeship with skilled professionals and elders [both men and women].
The elders have also 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.
The new FGM workshops to be carried out in schools and communities aim to replicate traditional initiation rituals for pubescent girls who are transitioning to womanhood, but without FGM/C.
The Reach program thinks that alternative Rite of Passage that retains the cultural celebration of a girl’s transition into womanhood without the ‘cut’, early/forced marriage as well as teenage pregnancy should be abandoned.
Effects of FGM
Among the salient issues cited as effects of FGM are that; FGM poses a serious threat to the health of women and girls, raising the risk of maternal and infant mortality, increasing vulnerability to HIV, and harming psychological, sexual and reproductive health, severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus infections, cysts and urinary inconvenience. This is the basis upon which Reproductive Education and Community Health, an local NGO used to launch a law to criminalise FGM.