SEBEI – Lowering the numbers of women and girls subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and teenage pregnancies requires the close involvement of men and boys in communities where the practices are believed to be persistent.
This is according to Mr. Samuel Francis Ononge, an FGM project officer with ActionAid International Uganda (AAIU) who is implementing a United Nations Population Fund-backed project in the Sebei community.
Mr. Ononge told PML Daily that FGM is still thriving behind closed curtains in Kapchorwa, Kween, and Bukwo Districts – noting that holding inter-generational dialogues with men and boys who are the perpetrators of early child marriages and GBV could help to reduce the practices.
He explained that in areas such as Ngenge and Chepsikunya, communities have turned to caves, and bushes to continue with FGM, instead of completely doing away with it and that they give it some credence, claiming that it is their culture and they can’t abandon it.
The community inter-generational dialogues targeting up to 2500 men and boys including cultural and religious leaders in conservative communities seen as hotspots to FGM and teenage pregnancies have been held in Kareserem, Kawowo, and Ngenge sub-counties in Kapchorwa District.
Similar engagements have been stretched as far as Kapsarur Sub-County, Kaptererwo Sub-County, and Bukwo Town Council near the Uganda-Kenyan border where recent reports indicated FGM had gained an upward trajectory.
“Boy and men are the influencers of decisions in these communities and their involvement is key in handling these issues. This has helped us to change the attitude and mindset on GBV and child marriage,” Mr. Ononge said noting that the male-focused dialogues provided an interrupted platform for creating awareness on harmful practices.
He said that previous community engagements targeting men and boys in the campaign to end FGM and child marriage have helped to male participation in community sensitization/education against harmful norms and practices that deprive the rights of women and girls.
“Experience from the communities of the project implementation indicates that fighting GBV/FGM and Child marriages require a multi-sectoral approach that involves key community influencers and all stakeholders at all levels,” said Mr. Ononge, citing previous successes of inter-generational dialogues on mitigating FGM.
He is, however, optimistic that engaging FGM and teenage pregnancy hotspot communities will help to reduce early child marriages among other harmful practices.
FGM is a traditional practice that involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
Centuries of practicing FGM have conditioned many couples and people in traditional communities to believe that sex is purely for reproduction. The fact that women who undergo FGM continue to endure pain and poor health for the rest of their lives is often overlooked. In some communities, FGM is viewed as a prerequisite for marriage.
The practice is rooted in religio-social beliefs within a frame of psycho-sexual and personal reasons such as control of women’s sexuality and family honour, which is enforced by community mechanisms, said Joseph Salimo, the head teacher of Kawowo Secondary School, a government-aided school.
Salimo adds that FGM connects with other social issues such as girls not completing education and growing into women who have poor literacy; pressure to accept early or child marriage.
Mr. Samson Wasangai, (92), the chairperson Kapsirikwo clan says together with clansmen elders, they recently allowed young men to marry women who have not undergone FGM.
“Our clan prohibited marrying uncircumcised and non-Sabiny women but today, we have now allowed the young boys to marry non uncircumcised and non-Sabiny women, Mr. Wasangai who spoke through a translator said.
He added that after being educated on a number of harmful cultural practices, they have since agreed to amend some of the conservative cultural protocols to pave the way for modernization “but without eliminating us and our culture.”
Imam Kaplonyi Habib Khan, one of the religious leaders in Kubilat Central, Karesem Sub County said adjustments should be allowed to do away with harmful cultural practices but warned against westernizing very much.
“Women aren’t our slaves. They are human beings and as men, we should engage them for the decision of the families,” Mr. Kaplonyi said calling for mutual respect between couples.
He, however, insisted that cultural and gender roles must be respected to avoid “westernizing very much.” Too much westernization has brought problems in our families.”
Mr. Seyeko Yusuf Rajab, a religious leader in the Kawowo sub-county said that it was important that every community preserved its culture and heritage but noted that some cultural practices that have been proved by modern knowledge and science to be dangerous to human life, need to be shunned and stopped.
“If a culture is proved to be harmful to human survival, like female genital mutilation, we can’t simply continue practicing it because it’s our culture,” Mr. Seyeko said.
It is such testimonies that anti-FGM crusaders now seek to amplify, as they encourage other young men to challenge the status quo and start telling girls that “if you are cut, we shall not marry you”. The hope is that older men, who regard their daughters as a source of income due to the cows paid for their hand in marriage, will get the message that if their daughters are cut, they will fetch fewer cows as younger generations reject FGM.
James Cheptum, one of the youth leaders in Bukwo Town Council said engagements like these were frequent and could do a lot in changing the mindset of the sabiny people.
“We just ask them to reach all communities. The knowledge we get from what they are teaching can help to change all those that don’t know the dangers of FGM and early marriages,” Cheptum said.
“We need them frequently,” he added, committing to continue engaging youth in his group on a number of harmful cultural practices.
Joshua Chekwemoi, 27, said he was able to attend the engagement because there were no women.
“This is my first time attending such an engagement,” he said through a translator.
Asked why, Chekwemoi who was in the company of other youth during the interview said, “We could speak freely here without our madam around”.
Action Aid with support from UNFPA has been engaging traditional and cultural leaders and authorities to reenergize their influence of culture, customs, traditions, and norms as key catalysts in the efforts to end child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C), including the development, review, and enforcement of laws.
The engagements have built a coordinated and sustainable approach to recognise and contribute to the African Union-led commitments and campaign to end child marriage and FGM/C.
It has also enhanced a collective understanding of the crisis at the end of the high abuse of children, especially child marriage, female genital mutilation and other harmful practices, and their impact on development; to share experiences, successes, best practices and challenges among each other to enable scaling up of efforts; and to set the agenda for high level consultations on movement building for traditional and cultural authorities in ending child marriage, FGM/C and promoting gender equality.
Action Aid works with the communities to prepare alternative activities and cultural institutions that will replace those centres for the practitioners. It is important, however, to provide adequate economic opportunities and support to the people that formally engaged in FGM to enable them transition from their trade smoothly and let go of the trade they served as a source of revenue for them for so long.
Not supporting them may force them to go underground in order to continue earning a living.
All stakeholders are involved in supporting their transition into other productive activities.
The cultural and religious leaders have committed to innovating more ways to protect the girls and continuously engage community members so that FGM/C does not return to communities that have abandoned the practice.
During the many engagements, participants concluded by saying that giving appropriate support and recognition to traditional and cultural leaders is key to ending FGM/C in the Sebei community.