By Namuli Hasifah (Lead Writer)
Born and raised in Atari Village, Kaptoyoy sub-county, in the Kween district of eastern Uganda, 23-year-old Mercy Chebet was married off at the tender age of 14 and had her first child at 15. Kween district is one of the regions that still practices female genital mutilation (FGM), despite being outlawed in Uganda by the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010. Chebet knew she would have to face the knife sooner or later and dreaded the day; until she encountered SASA.
SASA is a Kiswahili word that means ‘now’, and the acronym for Start, Awareness, Support and Action. The initiative works to end the underground practice of FGM in Kween district, under the stewardship of the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in Uganda. It aims to raise awareness on the implications of female genital mutilation, its contribution to HIV/AIDS prevalence in young girls; as well as a way to inspire community members to join the fight to stop the practice altogether.
Chebet left her marriage when she realised that her husband’s family was going to force FGM on her. “I wanted to report to the police, but I sought a pastor’s counsel. He then introduced me to the SASA team, and I haven’t looked back,” she recalls. Now a vibrant member of the Sebei Transformation Initiative (STI) who are steering the SASA campaign in the region, Chebet is recruiting many of her peers to speak up against the practice.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a cultural practice believed to be a rite of passage into womanhood in several African communities. In Uganda, it is customary to kill a cow and goat in celebration whenever this is done. There are usually no less than eight girls circumcised at a time, and the same sharp object is used for the procedure, without sterilisation.
The FGM Act criminalises the mutilation or attempts to mutilate girls or women. It states that neither consent, culture, tradition or religion is a defence against the crime of FGM in Uganda. This, however, has not discouraged the practice in some districts in Eastern Uganda. It only drove the practice underground, further exposing women to infections and diseases, including HIV/AIDS.
Start. Awareness. Support. Action.
The SASA initiative mobilises community members through one-on-one and group meetings to inspire positive action. This work is led by women and men who live and work in the community and are trained and supported by staff at the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention says Asha Chemutai, an assistant programme officer CEDOVIP. “We conduct outreaches and community trainings, as well as on-site mentoring support for community activists. We have also engaged with opinion leaders, district officials, health care providers and the police, on how best to prevent violence against women and FGM in the communities of Kween”. These community voices break the silence by sharing experiences from their communities with the aim of holding the perpetrators of FGM accountable.
During the Start phase, CEDOVIP encouraged the Kween Community to prioritise the fight against FGM. Through the Awareness phase, using mostly the community radio strategy, activists like Mercy and other recruits are hosted on educative radio shows. They also use simple dramas at community centers and churches to draw people’s attention, because they can easily relate to them and comprehend the messages which are designed in their local languages, as well as posters spread at community centers, places of worship, schools and health centers. “The Action phase involves the trainings that have really empowered our people to get actively involved in activities that deter FGM, as well as economic empowerment. We teach them how to improve their farming activities and market their agricultural produce,” Chemutai adds.
Priscilla Kusuro, the executive director, Sebei Transformation initiative notes that there has been a tremendous mindset and behavioral change due to constant and consistent SASA advocacy done by the Sebei Transformation Initiative with support from CEDOVIP. “We have inspired community members to join in violence against women & Female Genital Mutilation prevention and response to create happier, safer and healthier relationships in homes and communities. Men and women now understand the importance of balancing power in relationships, because the benefits here are very visible”.
Mercy has contributed to this by recruiting over 250 women, 80% of whom are married; as well as about 80 men — some of whom are their husbands — to spread the message across the district. Involving men in the fight against Gender-based violence is critical because their perceptions still hinder efforts to wipe out the practice.
Driven by experience
Cecil Amigo, a young Sabiny girl says she has escaped mutilation several times, but fears that she might still be forcefully mutilated one day. “I live in constant fear because both my parents insist that I do it. I look forward to the day I will escape this region and go very far away,” she adds.
Sarah Chelangat, a resident of Taragon village, Taragon Parish, Benet Sub County, in Kween district was not as lucky as Cecil. In 2020, she made the tough decision to take part in the custom to fit into the system and avoid public embarrassment. “I was confused on what to do, my friends were on my neck”. Chelangat joined the SASA campaign following her experience.
She appeals to the government to prioritise construction of more girls’ schools in Kween to ensure that the girl child is given an opportunity to attain decent formal education, as well as being empowered to resist and phase out the custom.
FGM is usually performed by older women called ‘surgeons’ who have no medical training. Most of the ‘surgeons’ say they were caught off guard by the FGM law as the government did not carry out proper sensitisation among them. They have asked the government to help provide alternative sources of income, as they lost their primary sources of income when they stopped the practice. In the absence of a replacement source of income for these women, the underground practise of FGM will continue to thrive.
Zaituni Cherukut Sisco, a social physio support officer at the Kween Gender-Based Violence Shelter says some FGM victims suffer depression and other medical, psychological and social-cultural challenges that may even trigger suicidal thoughts. “I joined the CEDOVIP SASA drive to educate, empower and support our community. Truthfully, the effects are now visible, more men and women are shying away from the practice. Women are now taking part in economic activities with support from their husbands. Children, especially girls, are more aware of their rights and are empowered to stay in school as compared to 10 years ago where the dropout rate was alarmingly high.”
The government is committed to ending the practice in the country. A new law enacting tougher legislation to curb sexual offenses and FGM is under review. Roads are being constructed to make the hideouts where the practice is ongoing more accessible to the authorities. The government is also engaging neighbouring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Tanzania in cross border meetings to ensure that the practice is fought on all fronts, as cross-border FGM has become quite common.
Funding is key if these initiatives must work. Fifteen years ago, the government approved the sum of 200 million Shillings (56,336 USD) annually to fund FGM campaigns. Former Speaker of Parliament, Rebecca Kadaga says this must be reviewed. She appealed to the government to prioritse funding the fight against FGM and tasked parliamentary committees to ensure budget increases in the next budgeting session.
Given government’s commitment to impose even tougher laws against the practice of FGM, the SASA campaign in Kween district will surely achieve its desired objective. It is possible to completely wipe out FGM by 2030 if everyone plays their part by creating awareness, supporting the victims and taking action. They can report defaulters to the authorities, speak up against the practice and advocate for the girl-child to be empowered and kept in school to resist such harmful practices. Like Mercy asserts, “This must end with our generation”.