Perched on the undulating hills of Kapchorwa district, eastern Uganda is Kokop Chebet’s mud-and-wattle house.
Behind it, a strong waterfall roars as the sun fades away into the horizon. After ten minutes in which we exhaust our persuasion skills, Chebet, a revered woman in Binyinyi village, grudgingly ushers us into her compound. Her neighbors cautiously watch from the sides. They soon draw close, ready to protect her from the uninvited guest.
For 30 years, this 81-year-old ‘traditional surgeon’ has spearheaded ‘wonshet nyobo tipik’, a tradition that involves cutting of the outer genitalia of girls and women aged 12 and above in her village.
Although it was damningly named female genital mutilation (FGM), and eventually outlawed in Uganda, the practice persists in the Sebei sub-region and parts of Karamoja. Many anti-FGM campaigns led by NGOs have been ignored in a bid to preserve a centuries-old tradition.
In fact, when entering Bukwo, a remote district in the region, one is welcomed by a big billboard saying: ‘Stop Female Circumcision’, it is dangerous to women’s health”. Any person would expect the Sabiny, who inhabit the area, to take the message seriously, but the turn of events reveals otherwise.
“People are still attached to their culture and don’t want to leave it just like that,” Chebet says.
Chebet, who sees her involvement in the custom as both spiritual and financial, charges between Shs 20,000 and Shs 50,000 per female.
“I received spiritual instructions from the ancestors; I needed to save marriages in Binyinyi,” she tells The Observer.
Traditionally, by slicing off the clitoris, arguably the most sexually-sensitive female organ, the Sabiny hoped to curb adultery amongst women when their predominantly nomadic pastoralist husbands were away. But FGM is also seen as an initiation of girls into womanhood and a signifier of readiness for marriage.
Women in Binyinyi believe they are infested with “Kapkugo” [demons] because a psychic felt an evil presence. More often, that “evil feeling” is an encounter with a spirit that is angry.
“Iombo chewona, ndene le, tongyonyo ngat anku arowtechini komoy nye miyat ngat” [I am not circumcised yet, but I feel haunted, and I usually get nightmares], says 22-year-old Rachel Kibet, a mother of three who was abandoned by her husband because she refused to be circumcised.
In Sebei culture, Chebet explains, uncircumcised women are not allowed to collect food from granaries or to enter the cattle kraal to scoop dung to plaster their house floors. They are scorned in public and, when they marry, their husbands are reluctant to showcase them.
Chebet, also a traditional birth attendant, says many pregnant mothers come to her house seeking antenatal care. She claims that at childbirth, they ask her to circumcise them.
Chebet confesses she often debates with herself whether to abandon the practice, owing to pressure from the church, government and activists, or to go on as her spiritual ancestors ordered.
Surgeons keep the remains of the clitoris and blood after circumcision to create fear and reinforce loyalty through threats to harm the women. The men say that they want to tame sexual desire, [which] reduces prostitution amongst women while the surgeons say it’s for spiritual reasons. But there are financial considerations too.
It’s no surprise, then, that some married women have been known to come back and ask to be circumcised. As Chebet sees it, only an increase in girl-child education and public awareness will help stop the practice. She says educated people have shown a tendency to shun circumcision.
It is this cultural clash that is holding back the fight against FGM. The World Health Organization says FGM has both physical and emotional consequences, which include severe bleeding, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth and increased risk of newborn deaths. Activists argue that they now have to cause an attitude change towards FGM.
“Culture is not static. We want the good things to continue and the bad ones to stop. FGM is not a good part of culture and it must stop,” said Church of Uganda Archbishop Stanley Ntagali.
Ntagali spoke recently, after the UN-funded annual anti-FGM marathon in Bukwo, aimed at increasing awareness against the practice. With most politicians shunning the fight against FGM, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is now partnering local churches in this region to spread the word against FGM.
The agency argues that using the churches will help fasten the fight against FGM because they reach most of the local communities.
“To change culture, you need someone who belongs to the same community, who speaks the same language, people will listen,” Commonwealth gold medalist Moses Kipirso, a native of Kapchorwa, told The Observer. “Culture speaks to the heart and so does religion; therefore, using the church will be critical in eliminating FGM.”
UNFPA Uganda country representative Esperance Fundira acknowledges that although it is going to be a long and complex struggle to change attitudes towards FGM in the remote areas, the practice can be eliminated.
“It is possible to give up FGM without giving up the meaningful, positive aspects of the Sabiny culture,” she said.
In Kapchorwa, cases of female genital mutilation have reduced, activists say, because of the sensitisation programmes undertaken by UNFPA. Since 2010, when Uganda’s anti-FGM law was enacted, some mutilators are now shying away from the practice. Fundira said 15 years of working with community-based organizations have shown that behavioral change towards FGM in communities is possible.
“Young and older men are changing their attitudes towards a culture that is supportive of the social and economic empowerment of girls and women,” she said.
In other instances, girls are running away from their homes and families during the cutting period. Between 2012 and 2013, close to 1,000 girls ran away to seek refuge in schools which government has designated as ‘Safety Centers’ in the six districts where the practice is rampant.
Rachael Cherop, a 15-year-old girl who survived being cut in December last year, says she sought refuge at Kortek Girls Secondary School in Bukwo district.
“I escaped at night when they wanted to mutilate me; my focus is education and giving self-belief to other girls who aren’t cut,” she says.
Eunice Mwawga, a local district official, says it is critical to increase the number of schools in the region while targeting cultural change. She adds that sending girls to school delays FGM and if the girls go for higher education, they will be empowered to resist FGM.
“It is still an uphill task to abolish it completely in the region and the world because in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Senegal, almost 90 per cent of the women go through mutilation,” she says.
If convicted, FGM perpetrators face a jail term of between four to five years. But some are still unwilling to let go of the practice.
According to UNFPA, the national prevalence of FGM, at one per cent, seems low; but in communities where it’s practiced the figures remain high.
For instance, among the Pokot, about 95 per cent of the girls and women have been mutilated.