KAPCHORWA – Throughout history and across cultures, women and girls have faced innumerable challenges and injustices but amidst these, there are those who have stood out.
The 2022 International Women’s Day, recognises the achievements of women and promotes the cause of gender equality.
One such woman is Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the director General of the Reproductive Education and Community Health programme [The REACH] and founder, an NGO is involved in the fight against FGM across Sebei sub-region.
On the international day 3 March 2022 at Kololo grounds, government of Uganda has taken a moment to recognize this woman who overcame adversity, broke through barriers, and has fought FGM/Cutting in Sebei sub-region.
H.E President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of the republic of Uganda awarded her a medal for her outstanding performance in championing for gender equality, women’s rights, equal opportunity for women and girls and abandonment of FGM in Sebei and Karamoja sub-regions for over two decades.
Ms Chelangat is an anti-FGM champion in Kapchorwa, Kween, Bukwo and Amudat districts and as a result of her work, the sub-regions have witnessed tremendous reduction of FGM including advocating for the law [Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010], girls education and qualitative transformation of society.
According Mr Robert Cherop, her deputy director at The REACH programme, this recognition of her efforts is timely and will go a long way in informing good men and women in society that development comes when we all join hands to condemn and fight injustice.
“She is a woman of unique character whose dream is to see a society free from all forms of violence and everyone enjoys their fundamental rights, congratulations to her and conglatulations of The REACH programme,” said Mr Cherop.
Ms Beatrice Chelangat:
She says that she didn’t have to go through the cut to better understand the painful experience associated with female genital mutilation (FGM/C).
But that her 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. “And I listened every year to these harrowing stories from young girls,”
And she added that every time she close her eyes, I hear girls screaming for help, she would see innocent young girls being forced by their parents to undergo FGM.
She explained that 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.
“Women go through painful menstruation, irregular menses and difficulty in passing menstrual blood to the level that they develop a scar in their private parts,” Chelangat says.
Ms Chelangat reveals 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.
“And I spoke 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.
She explains that determination has been her life’s big secret. “If I want something, I do not take chances; I go out for it, Ms Chelangat adds with a piercing smile.
Ms Chelangat has been a Director General for The REACH programme, 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.
“I thank the Almighty God for this medal; it has not come easy but out of great work and I get it on behalf of The Reach programme, on behalf of all the women/girls, people of Sebei and Karamoja sub-regions. And lastly I get this medal on behalf of all the girls and women who have abandoned FGM,” said an excited Ms Chelangat.
Adding that “In a special way I would also like to thank the ministry of Gender, culture and community development for choosing me; it is recognition of our work as The Reach programme. I want to pledge that as REACH programme we shall work with this ministry,”
She added that “This medal just adds to our already existing energy and commitment to fight FGM, the work has just started, we need to do more. We must encourage vigorous action among health providers, civil society, women’s organizations, funders, international agencies, international and national courts of justice, global and religious leaders, and governments to change this unacceptable practice,”
Apart from her regular duties which include technical work, writing proposals and meeting with donors, she the visits to grassroots and participates in the one on one liberation missions; something she holds dearly.
Together with her Team, 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.
“Until recently when we lost government funding to fight FGM, we had started giving refuge to girls who ran from their homes to escape being circumcised or being married off, these we would keep them at national safety centre for female survivors of the brutal practice in Kapchorwa town,” she adds.
Born to a retired primary teacher and a housewife and raised in Kapchorwa municipal Council, Chelangat was the first girl-child in her family to join university, but even that required strong resolve.
She says after sitting her A-Level at Nkoma SS in Mbale, she did not do well enough to get admitted to Makerere University.
“I came back home, read privately and re-sat the A-Level exams at Sebei College and I made it to Makerere,” Chelangat says, revealing proudly that all her children have also followed suit with the kind of determination she had.
Chelangat, a single mother of two boys and the director general of a Kapchorwa-based non-governmental organisation [The REACH] working to eradicate FGM/C says she is determined to end the vice in Uganda.
The REACH programme is involved in fighting FGM/C, a cultural practice treasured by her people, the Sabiny, for generations, which certainly needs determination, but it also tied in with her own fate.
She says that in 1988, she was 18, the age most Sabiny consider right for a girl to have her genitalia cut off as a rite of passage, the Kapchorwa district council passed a resolution making FGM compulsory.
And that although this was later reduced to “optional”, the message had gone out.
“As a young girl, I and my peers felt insecure because we were not ready for the knife,” says Chelangat, the oldest of four girls and third born in a family of ten.
Later, while at university, Chelangat teamed up with other Sabiny students to start a campaign for girl-child education as a way of fighting FGM and with support from Sabiny elders and politicians, they participated in preparing a proposal for a project against FGM launched in January 1996 which became the birth of The Reach programme.
Initially REACH was a programme under the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) but it has been an independent NGO since 2006.
She adds that working with elders and through peer educators and advocates at all levels, The REACH has sensitised both parents and youth about the dangers of FGM and the need to abandon it.
The REACH has also recruited former “cutters or surgeons” and given them heifers as an alternative source of income and has developed packages of alternative rites of passage to replace FGM and lobbied local and national leaders to outlaw FGM.
The REACH programme has teamed up with the government of Uganda to put up anti-FGM schools in Kween, Kapchorwa, Bukwo 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.
Ms Chelangat says through The REACH programme they have 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.
She is an advocate associated with establishment of Kwosir girl’ secondary school and Amudat and also establishment of Royal Vocational institute to promote skilling of both girls and boys in Kapchorwa municipality.
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.
“In 2019 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.
The Law against FGM
She says through The REACH programme elders in Sebei sub-region called Dr Chris Baryomunsi [Kinkizi East MP and chairman of Parliament’s Committee on Food Security] and his team in Kapchorwa and the elders told him to give support to have the bill against FGM passed. “He accepted and even to be the one to move the bill,” she says.
On December 11, the parliament passed the legislation banning female circumcision, the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010, this became the turning point against FGM and it earned her a turkey from her sister in law.
But her efforts have been recognised beyond family circles. In an interview, Kapchorwa LCV Chairman Nelson Chelimo said REACH had done a great job and he hoped money would be found so that the project can reach the more conservative people.
In June 2010, when a Sabiny delegation visited President Museveni in Entebbe, they chose Chelangat to read their memorandum. She says the president promised the Sabiny and Pokot one model girls secondary school each (as a tool against FGM) as well as 22 university scholarships, starting with the 2010/11 budget.
Apart from the international Women’s day celebration award for 2022, the AFU has also on their website described Ms Chelangat as an extraordinary advocate devoted to empower ring girls and eliminating FGM/C in Uganda
Mr Nelson Chelimo, the former LCV chairman for Kapchorwa says “With Chelangat’s help, adolescent girls from the Sabiny tribe in Sebei have the opportunity to go to school, delay marriage and ensure their health and dignity,”
He added that government of Uganda has been awarding women achievers throughout the years especially during international Women’s day but that Chelangat has been missing, “But I want to say that I am happy that government has recognised her efforts today,” said Mr Chelimo.
In 2009, the American for UNFPA, a US-based organisation also nominated Chelangat for the international award for promoting health and dignity of women and she travelled to the US for this award.
But not everyone appreciates her journeys on rough roads and meetings in remote villages. Many wonder why she has maintained her campaign for 26 years.
She adds that as an NGO, life is much harder than during the UNFPA days and without government funding because of limited and irregular funding, As The REACH programme, we cannot carry out enough education campaigns against FGM. Ends
FGM/C is a form of violence that stems from the cultural belief that a girl’s value lies in her virginity, and that a woman’s body and indeed sexuality belong to her family and her husband.