It was the very first of its kind, a half-marathon that attempted to engage, involve and educate the masses in Sabiny land about the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and by extension end the practice. It took place on 19th September 2015 in Kapchorwa.
It was in Tartar Village in Kaptanya subcounty, Kapchorwa district that I met an elderly woman - Kokop Mwajuma a traditional surgeon; involved in the now outlawed Female Genital Mutilation, an initiation practice for young girls and women that involves cutting outer genitalia. Kokop was living with her grandson who takes care of her and ushers in guests who come to visit or interview her. She was upset, because her source of livelihood has been tampered with by the same government which she says sends people to question her.
Among the Sabiny community, FGM is seen as an initiation of girls into womanhood. Once cut, the girls are then deemed ready for marriage. Besides being a spiritual obligation, for Kokop, FGM was a business. She charged between 20,000 shillings (5 U.S. dollars) to 50,000 shillings (14 dollars) for every cut. She says banning it makes no sense because girls from Sabiny cross over to Kenya to get cut and come back proud and fulfilled. "The Kenyans get business and I don’t, When the law becomes tough, the tactics change", said Kokop who is struggling to breakaway from this practice. Some of the dangers of FGM include excessive bleeding when not properly done and sharing of knives, which could cause HIV infections.
On December 10, 2009, the Ugandan Parliament passed a law banning the practice of female genital mutilation. The bill imposes harsh penalties for participation in the practice of FGM. A person convicted of the practice faces a sentence of up to ten years in prison. In the case of what is called aggravated FGM, when the practice causes death or disability or results in the victim's infection with HIV/AIDS, the punishment is life imprisonment. Anyone who provides aid or in any way takes part in the practice is liable, on conviction, to a prison term of up to five years.
However, despite the existence of this law, the practice continues, although silently among the sabiny. Asked why, Chemutai a teenage mother of 3 who was among those arrested for accepting to be cut said.....
.....“it’s our culture and it’s who we are; besides, the wounds heal in less than a week. All we have to do is go for a PPF injection. It’s really not a big deal”
It was indeed surprising to learn from some of the sabiny people that they had no idea that a law banning FGM in Uganda had been passed. Some blamed their members of parliament for shying away from this sensitive issue. “No wonder they are not Circumcised” one declared.
UNFPA organized anti-FGM marathon in partnership with the Church of Uganda Sebei diocese and Kapchorwa Local Government leadership to support Government efforts to eliminate FGM in the districts of Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween which are home to the Sabiny; as well as raise hope and protect the young girls from undergoing a harmful cultural practice. The archbishop of the church of Uganda His Worship Stanley Ntagali was chief runner and while speaking to the masses said that the role of the church is crucial in changing mindsets and contributing to a paradigm shift to a change of culture. UNFPA’s Esperance Fundira said that ‘we can give up FGM without giving up our culture’. UNFPA addresses FGM holistically by funding and implementing culturally-sensitive programmes for the abandonment of the practice, advocating for legal and policy reforms and building national capacity to stop all forms of FGM.
Re-known long distance runner & world champion Moses Kipsiro was there to support the cause. He spoke about the dangers of FGM and the need to empower the young men and women of Kapchorwa who are some of the best long distance runners the country has. Whereas religious leaders believed that involving the church is crucial in the fight of FGM, some Civil society activists advice that campaigns targeting FGM should be approached from a cultural perspective as opposed to a project angle that has to be ticked off a work plan.
‘Surgeons like Kokop accused the president for promising to give her a cow and a monthly allowance to keep her away from the practice; a promise he has never fulfilled. She said that “Museveni is good but a liar”. Asked if she would stop if the president fulfilled his promise; Her response was hilarious, she told me that her exceptional cutting skills make many young women seek her services, so she would not guarantee quitting.
The efforts of development agencies like UNFPA are commendable but one of the long-term solutions to ending FGM should focus on cutting its demand and this can only be achieved through educating of the girl child and the communities that she lives in.