Uganda-Kenya cross-border partnership rescues girls from female genital mutilation during COVID-19

Countries unite to keep girls uncut

By Denis Jjuuko and Proscovia Nakibuuka Mbonye
female genital mutilation, FGM, female circumcision, harmful practices, child abuse, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe
24 September 2020

Seven girls aged between 11 and 13 possibly out of boredom due to the COVID-19 lockdown sat down and started talking about what they assumed is the passage to adulthood – get a ‘surgeon’ to perform Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) on their bodies. Living in a very rural area without much exposure to the outside world, they had heard that to be considered a woman; one must have gone through FGM. 

They heard that the ‘surgeon’ has to be paid yet didn’t have money. They realized that roast maize had a market in their community, and they started trading in it. They were frugal, saving every coin made. They used some of their savings to buy razor blades — at least one for each of them. Once they realized that they had saved some money, they started looking for a ‘surgeon’ who could perform FGM and their search led them to Kenya. 

Kenya and Uganda share a porous common border and the COVID-19 lockdown had weakened some of the structures or one could say there was more emphasis on COVID-19 than other issues such as FGM. Despite the travel restrictions, using the porous border, the girls crossed from Uganda to Kenya on their search for an FGM ‘surgeon.’ 

While in Kenya, authorities were alerted that there were seven girls from Uganda looking for a ‘surgeon’ that could perform FGM. The Kenyan authorities went into overdrive looking for them and within no time, they were able to find them and alerted their Ugandan counterparts. Ugandan and Kenyan authorities have been collaborating for years to fight FGM, a practice also common among the Pokot in Kenya. 

female genital mutilation, FGM, female circumcision, harmful practices, child abuse, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bridger

Despite the containment measures of COVID-19 pandemic, the FGM forum is still active conducting surveillance and continues cross border collaborations g through virtual platforms. A WhatsApp group has also been created and members are able to report and respond to cases of violence against children including FGM in real-time. 

Loru Moses King, the Community Development Officer of Tapac sub-county and the FGM focal person for Moroto District who is also one of the pioneers that started the cross-border coordination, says the discussions that begun with a single meeting have resulted into a fully-fledged Uganda - Kenya cross-border forum on FGM and other harmful practices. 

The forum continues to coordinate issues on all harmful practices – child marriage, FGM, and security – in the two countries. Stakeholders from the affected districts in the Karamoja sub-region are represented and they ensure that cross-border surveillance, information sharing, service provision and community engagement are enhanced to put an end to FGM.

It is this active and vigilant coordination that saw twenty six girls intercepted in Kenya and brought back to Uganda uncut in the peak of COVID-19 lockdown.

“We didn’t know it was a bad practice,”  

says Mary (not real name)
female genital mutilation, FGM, female circumcision, harmful practices, child abuse, child protection
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe

“We didn’t know it was a bad practice,” says Mary (not real name), one of the rescued girls during an interview at Kalas Girls Primary School, which is their temporary home and where they are being rehabilitated by the Child and Family Protection Unit of the Uganda Police in collaboration with the district social welfare unit. They continue to receive training on life skills, sensitization on FGM and its effects on their lives. Mary and her friends look forward to starting formal learning when schools reopen as well as make new friends when the rest of the pupils return to class.

The joint collaboration between Uganda and Kenya mentioned earlier is as a result of the introduction and implementation of the UNICEF/UNFPA Joint Programme to End Child Marriage and Female Genital Mutilation that commenced in 2011. Before the programme, communities were unaware of the dangers of the practice and its short- and long-term effects on their children. 

The UNICEF Child Protection Officer, Christine Koli, says that the affected communities are now aware of the dangers of FGM and child marriage. However, the case of the rescued girls underlines the need for more concerted efforts to fight this harmful and entrenched practice in both Uganda and Kenya. 

FGM is a violation of the rights of women and girls. Despite this, in Uganda, the harmful practice is still seen as a necessary rite of passage in some communities to prepare girls for marriage, and for them to be accepted in society. Failure to conform can lead to social exclusion for the girls and or their families – as well as lack of respect. Among such communities are the Pokot, Tepeth, and Kadama in Amudat, Moroto and Nakapiripirit in the Karamoja sub-region in Uganda.

In Uganda Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is practiced by the Sabiny in Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts, the Pokot in Amudat; the Kadama in Nakapiripirit and the Tepeth in Moroto District. In order to fit in society, many girls still feel it important to undergo FGM despite its abolishment in the country. During the COVID-19 travel restrictions, some girls escaped to Kenya to get cut but were intercepted, thanks to the Uganda-Kenya cross border collaboration forum on female genital mutilation that ensured the girls were returned to Uganda uncut.