BY DAVID MAFABI
Violet Kisa a 27-year-old from Riwo village, Bukwo District has firsthand experience of the devastating consequences of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) — cutting girls’ education short.
Kissa was mutilated when aged 15 and forced into marriage by her parents soon after. And today, she deeply regrets it.
She explained that her independence, natural joy, gentleness, and steady she enjoyed became distorted after FGM.
“I was closed off, angry, irritable, and empty, maybe I would be a nurse, an accountant, or a teacher, I would have been professional. When a girl is forced to undergo FGM, she loses her future,” Kissa told this reporter.
In the Sebei sub-regions [Kapchorwa, Kween, Bukwo districts] and Karamoja’s Amudat, Nakapiripirit and Moroto when children return to the classroom for the third term this year, some faces will not make it – the faces of girls.
The girls will be absent not by choice, not because they don’t want to study but because during the holidays parents force them to undergo FGM and later marriage.
Kisa, is now a peasant farmer living in Bukwo, a part of Sebei where according to Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda [Law-Uganda], up to 35 percent of girls endure FGM.
The practice entails cutting off parts of a girl’s private parts and traditionally, this brutalisation is considered to be a rite of passage into womanhood, and once a girl is cut the countdown to early marriage and pregnancy begins.
According to Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the Director General Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH] program, a local NGO that has been involved in the fight against FGM since 1996, when girls undergo FGM, chances of going back to school are cut short while chances of dropping out to get married go high.
Kissa today recognises that FGM has brought untold disaster upon her community adding that it has denied girls/ women dignity, abused their rights, denied them an education, and grossly interfered with the development of women/girls.
She said every year she watches with concern as the numbers of pre-teen girls in school dwindle and that when she asks, the teachers say; “They underwent FGM; they just disappeared after FGM because parents force them into marriage, they get married as teens and their lives end there,” added Ms Chelangat.
Ms Chelangat says that the Sabiny are safeguarding their culture but at the same time eroding the rights, and welfare of women/girls by cutting their education short.
She explained that because FGM is so rooted among the traditionalists, ending it in order to promote girl education is a complex process that requires a behavioral change in negative social norms of society.
Ms Chelangat’s observations are confirmed by the former executive director Law-Uganda, Dora Byamukama who also notes that although there are positive results in the implementation of the law that prohibits FGM, the practice still persists in less educated homes, in the bushes, caves, isolated places and across the borders in Kenya.
“There is a need to take awareness lessons to the traditionalists in their homes in order to protect girls/women,” she added.
Rev. Fred Kiprop of Sebei Diocese recalls how a girl from his Kapkworos village was due to become the first female to go to a secondary school in 1986 but her dreams were dashed after she was forced to undergo FGM.
“And after FGM, the young girl then about 14 was forced into marriage by the parents, got children whom the husband could not look after, and she now makes a living by digging other people’s gardens to support her family,” said Rev Kiprop.
Kissa is not alone
Kissa’s life tragedy story may be depressing, but she is not alone. She is one of the teeming numbers of teenage mothers in Sebei who have undergone FGM and been forced into marriage at a tender age.
Although UNFPA estimates that less than 1% of Uganda’s population practices FGM, the practice is widespread in some far eastern and northeastern communities including; the Pokot Tepeth [Moroto] and Sabiny people [Kapchorwa, Kween, and Bukwo districts].
Ms Chelangat says since FGM is deeply rooted in local norms and traditions, national estimates do not accurately reflect the severity of the situation adding that. in Uganda, FGM is concentrated in six (out of 135) districts, with prevalence rates among women aged 15–49 reaching more than 50% in some of the sub-counties in those districts, and as high as 67% in one sub-county (UBOS and UNICEF, 2017].
The findings of the present study [UBOS 2017] show that, although FGM has a negative impact on the health and well-being of girls and women, it has also contributed to shaping the identity of entire communities.
The study report adds that FGM is deeply rooted in people’s culture and that its abandonment will be the result of a slow and complex process that will require the involvement of different community groups over sustained periods of time.
But the REACH program with support from the African Development Bank [AfDB] and the government of Uganda through UNRA to create awareness on GBV and FGM along Kapchorwa-Suam road now under construction is running outreaches, media campaigns, community engagement meetings, and repair of the girls/women who were cut in communities, specifically targeting women and girls experiencing violence, including those [at risk] of FGM.
Female students usually drop out of school after FGM
Ms Joyce Chemutai, a teacher living in Kapchorwa, says up to about 40 percent of girls endure FGM and that the practice entails cutting a girl’s clitoris and labia, which is traditionally considered a rite of passage into womanhood.
Ms Chemutai says that many pre-teen girls in the school dwindle especially during the third term and that after the holidays a significant number of the 11 to 15-year-old female pupils never return to school.
“And for every 90 percent boys in a class, there are 35% fewer girls in school at secondary level than at primary level, and this is so bad for the Sebei sub-region because we are sacrificing the future of the girl-child,” said Ms Chemutai
“They drop out in P4, P5, P6, and P7 in primary and those who successfully join secondary, drop out in S1 and S2 [age 11 to 17. After attending FGM practice, they just disappear. They get married and their life ends there,” added Ms Chemutai.
This is what has prompted Ms Beatrice Chelangat to take action through the REACH program by joining forces with other community members to run awareness-raising sessions at all schools [Primary and secondary] and also teach them about the negative effects of FGM.
Kissa like other girls/women who have undergone FGM do not only suffer from the post-FGM complications, they are also forced to get married as teens and go through pain while delivering.
FGM is an internationally recognised violation of the human rights of girls and women and, although globally the prevalence of FGM is declining, according to United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) survey report carried out in 2020, the practice still affects around 200 million women across the world.
A survey conducted by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics [Ubos] and UNICEF in December 2016 to collect detailed district and sub-district level data on FGM in Uganda targeting a representative sample of households and women aged between 15 and 49 years across six districts in eastern Uganda, including Kapchorwa, Bukwo, and Kween and Nakapiripirit, Moroto and Amudat found out that the average prevalence rate of FGM across the six districts was 26.6 percent in 2016, much higher than the national average for the same period (0.32 percent) found in 2016 by Uganda Demographic and Health Survey.
The survey report also revealed that the FGM district-level prevalence ranged from 13 percent in Kapchorwa District to 52 percent in Katikekile and Tupac sub-counties of Moroto District and that high prevalence rates were accompanied by high awareness rates, with an average of 97 percent of women having heard of FGM.
Although the government outlawed FGM in 2010, punishing any person convicted with a 10-year jail term, this is 2022 and the prevalence of the banned practice is yet to be defeated or eliminated completely.
According to Ms Chelangat, girls from families rooted in traditions are forced by their parents to travel to remote areas, either alone or in small groups, to undergo mutilation in isolated areas such as mountains, Caves, and gardens.
“Parents today because of fear of the law make teenage girls at some point feel ready to be cut and they make a demand from their parents to undergo FGM in order to become a full woman,” she says.
Ms Chelangat adds that this has caused health risks for girls and women as the practice is often performed in a rush, without paying attention to sanitation.
She explained that male circumcision is among the major drivers of FGM adding that according to norms, uncut women are not allowed to attend any male circumcision ceremonies because they are taken to be unclean women and not full women.
“And in such circumstances, a man hires someone’s wife to escort him to a ceremony and in other traditions, uncut women are not allowed to smear houses, serve their husbands, and go into the kraal to get food,” says Ms Chelangat.
She revealed that girls and women with a primary education are 30 percent more likely than those with no education to oppose FGM and that this rises to 70 per cent among girls and women with a secondary education or higher.
The LCV chairman for Kapchorwa Ms Evelyn Chebet Kubarika says the social norms and strong peer pressure limit girls’ ability to make free and independent choices about FGM.
Curse of FGM
The Bishop of Sebei Diocese Rev Paul Kipto Masaba [Church of Uganda] says FGM is not only de-humanizing to women and the girl-child but is also brutal, inflicts permanent injuries, and poses a great danger to girls and their children during childbirth.
Rev Kipto also observed that although it is true that the government passed the 2010 law against FGM, it is not enough, the government has to ensure that the law is implemented; to have the perpetrators arrested and prosecuted.
He said that although Sebei has very many girls with talent and creativity, FGM, GBV, discrimination and the lack of equal opportunities repeatedly thwart these dreams and potential including the education of girls.
Even when many women/girls are abused through FGM in the Sebei sub-region, the latest UDHS data (2016) (UBOS and ICF, 2018) say the prevalence of FGM in Uganda remains among the lowest in East Africa, with the most recent estimates at 0.3% among women aged 15–49 years.
A 2017 survey report (UBOS and UNICEF, 2017) reveals an FGM prevalence rate among women aged 15–49 across the six districts ranging from 13% in Kapchorwa to 52% in Moroto.
Ms Christine Awor, Chief Executive Officer for the Uganda Law Society, named Tugumo, Knot, Benet, Kaptanya, Girik, Kwanyiny, and Ngenge as the hot spot areas where the culture of FGM is still persisting due to low levels of education for girl children.
She spoke about the excruciating pain girls and women undergo, often at the hands of cutters in non-sterile conditions, and that this poses serious long-term sexual and reproductive health consequences for the survivors.
“And like Kissa, many girls’ education has been cut short, they have been forced into teenage marriages against their will, their future is destroyed and some are suffering reproductive health complications,” said Ms Awor.
Dr Arapkisa Yeko, a reproductive health specialist [Kapchorwa] says FGM primarily affects disadvantaged women from poor households but that the national prevalence rates are not representative of the whole country due to high geographical variation.
“Education is an important mechanism to increase awareness of the dangers of FGM and of groups that do not practice it and this would help people discard it,” said Dr Arapkisa.
The State Minister for Gender, Labour, and Social Development, Ms Peace Mutuuzo, while officiating at a Sabiny Cultural Day event last year at Amanang Primary School, said there is no need for Uganda to form an anti-FGM commission to end the vice but that government should invest more energy in sensitising the community.
FGM refers to all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for cultural or other non-medical reasons.
FGM is an internationally recognised violation of the human rights of girls and women and, although globally the prevalence is declining
Effects of FGM
The Kapchorwa District health officer, Dr Michael Muwanga, says among the salient issues cited as effects of FGM are a serious threat to the health of women and girls, increasing vulnerability to HIV, raising the risk of maternal and infant mortality, and harming psychological, sexual and reproductive health, severe pain, hemorrhage, tetanus in