Convincing cultural leaders to fight Female Genital Mutilation

“They tell the girls that if you are not cut you will not fetch enough cows in bride price.”

By Joachim Buwembo
female genital mutilation, FGM, Uganda, Kenya, cross border collaboration, adolescent girls, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2017/Ntabadde
14 December 2020

“Power in Karamoja is widely decentralized so, it is extremely difficult to take it away or bestow it on any externally endorsed authority.”

This statement of summary was made by a participant at the recently held Training of Trainers for Amudat District in Mbale City for the renewed campaign against Violence Against Women and Girls. It summarizes the challenge of implementing the enforcement of the officially illegal practices that are deeply entrenched in culture and customs of the communities in Uganda’s north-eastern region.

And who would know this better than the district’s topmost woman politician, a seasoned grassroots mobiliser and highly popular leader! Dorcas Chelain is the elected Vice Chairperson of Amudat District, which is populated by the Pokot - arguably the most “complicated” community in the already complicated Karamoja sub-region.

Though disabled in the legs, Dorcas is a moving testimony of energy powered by a mission. Cautioning social workers on the need to tame their optimism, she gives them the example of old women in the community who easily frustrate interventions by their misleading reactions. In a society where gatherings are segregated by age, sex and such demographic stratification, it is advisable to speak to women alone as they may not talk freely in presence of men. But even after getting the women alone, they will easily pretend to agree with what an outsider comes to tell them like the dangers of female circumcision for example.

But direct ‘lecturing’ to the mature women who are virtually all cut is most likely to be a total waste of time. They will all agree, and even enthusiastically at that, but will not pass on the message. On the contrary, they will get back to the girls who are candidates for circumcision and reinforce the “need” to get cut as failure to do so would spell the doom of remaining unmarried

“They tell the girls that if you are not cut you will not fetch enough cows in bride price,”

Dorcas explains.

And that the younger you are when you get cut and therefore ready for marriage, the more cows your father will be paid. It is a difficult society where ‘no’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘no’ but is often used as a ploy to get to know more you know or are looking for.”

Indeed, my subsequent research in Amudat indicates that girls as young as eleven years have been using the Covid-19 lockdown to sneak to the bushes and cut themselves, then limp back home for the ‘experts’ (traditional surgeons) to complete the circumcision for them.  
The ideal solution is to get to the support of ultimate authority in the Pokot community and that person, a man of course, does not have any known official office the way the rest of country understand it. Among the Pokot today, the participants in Mbale agreed, that authority is the WER KOYON, a spiritual leader of sorts. He is the one who is listened to without question, the ultimate power in the society.

When organizing a community dialogue for example, one needs to know that these invisible power brokers are always listening. The goings on will be reported back to Wer Koyon and he decides on the level of compliance or resistance.

Wer Koyon doesn’t explain the reason behind his decision, the society members’ duty is to obey him. For him, he has diverse sources of knowledge including that which is inherited or passed down from his ancestors and the contemporary information from his diverse sources. For example, he is aware that the largest single community in Uganda, the Baganda actually does the opposite of female circumcision by enhancing what the Pokot instead cut off, and that restoration of traditional leaders in the country 25 years ago led to a resurgent obsession with practices like genital enhancement among the ‘modern’ ladies in the capital city of  Kampala and the entire region surrounding it. So Wer Koyon’s awareness on the ‘danger’ of such influences informs his commitment to protect his people from ‘negative’ external forces especially in the era of fast spread of information. His response to calls to end FGM therefore is easy to predict. He is the examiner who has to be convinced that the message has benefits for is community. 

“In reality, when we are sensitizing the people in the community we are actually being examined,” said one of the trainers. “The problem is that we do not see, do not know the examiners. Yet they are the ones we are addressing though we cannot see them. Hence the need to engage them much earlier, in a process that may take years,”