Finding creative ways to discourage Female Genital Mutilation

Using male social ambassadors marrying uncut brides

By Joachim Buwembo
female genital mutilation, FGM, Uganda, Kenya, cross border collaboration, adolescent girls, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2015/Wandera
14 December 2020

Even after the Ugandan Parliament outlawed Female Genital Mutilation –FGM over a decade ago in April 2010, the dangerous practice of cutting girls’ genitalia has continued in some communities in the east and north-east of Uganda. In places like Amudat District, which is home of the conservative Pokot community, FGM not only persists but it is actually believed to be on the increase.

Leaders, health and social workers believe that it has only gone underground and in many cases, girls who approach puberty are smuggled out to neighbouring Kenya where they undergo the ‘operation’ and return when it is too late for the Ugandan authorities to stop them from breaking the law to their own detriment.

Now efforts to protect the girls from the permanent and irreversible damage take on a better-informed approach under the United Nations’ and European Union’s Spotlight Initiative to end Violence Against Women and Girls being implemented by UNICEF in Uganda is getting more innovative. The district leadership team in Amudat, home of the Pokot community, is enlisting the participation of twenty young men who in the past couple of years got married to ‘normal’ girls who had survived the cruel cut. 

The young husbands are to become social ambassadors bearing the message that the rest of world takes for granted and doesn’t even stop to think about, that sex is enjoyable –if the woman was not cut.

Centuries of practicing FGM have conditioned couples and generally people in traditional communities like the Pokot to believe that sex is purely for reproduction and should the child be a girl, increase the father’s wealth in form of cows he is paid for her in marriage – and the earlier the marriage the more cows she fetches. 

That the cut woman continues enduring pain and poor health for the whole of her married life seems to be immaterial to the traditional Pokot Community. But even the men never get to experience marriage with uncut women.

Following the outlawing of FGM in Uganda ten years ago, sensitization against the practice has been going on, carried out by some courageous people and organizations in the ultra-conservative Pokot community, but with very limited impact. Straight Talk Foundation, which promotes adolescent reproductive health through communication, was one of them and some parents bought the message of protecting their girls from FGM. The result was some twenty girls successfully resisting the cruel cut. Greatly supported by their parents and church, the girls kept dodging the knife until twenty of them got married, something unknown to the Pokot. 

But then equally surprised are their husbands who apparently after having previously married cut women are now staying with uncut women, moreover from their own community.

It is the testimony of these young husbands that both governmental and non-governmental social workers now seek to exploit, as they influence other young men to start telling the girls that “if you are cut, we shall not marry you.” 

Ultimately, the older men who regard their daughters as a source of wealth through the cows paid for their hand in marriage, should get the message that if their girls are cut, they might not fetch any cows as more young men start shunning them.

To its credit, the government is an early adherent to the strategy of using the twenty young couples as ambassadors against FGM, which is probably the cruelest customary form of violence against girls ever invented. A year back, the government rewarded each of the twenty girls with twenty roofing iron sheets – a major component for constructing a modern, permanent house.

Sitting in Mbale for a week in mid-November, the Amudat District team of technocrats and administrators resolved to intensively engage the twenty couples in the new onslaught on FGM, for theirs is the most powerful and convincing testimony to their peers, to break the ages-old mindset that has left the women of an entire community enduring marriage as a painful life sentence.