In 1980, Ms Susan Chesakit Kopot, then 34, was walking without any difficulty. She carried out her tasks with ease until she underwent female genital mutilation (FGM).
“I got the problem in 1980 after being mutilated. My legs got paralysed and although I went for treatment, they could not help me. Since then, my legs have been [crippled],” the 73-year-old says.
Two years later, she got married, getting extra support for only 18 years.
“I got married to my late husband Alex Chekwet with whom we produced five children, but in 2000, he died, leaving me alone to struggle with the children,” she narrates.
Today, she does odd jobs to support her family.
“I make ropes which I sell in the local market and I use the proceeds for feeding my family. I cannot do any other work,” Ms Chesakit says.
Her case is not unique. Thousands of Sabiny and other women in Uganda have undergone FGM, leading to untold suffering. Despite laws to fight the vice, the practice is still carried out in some communities.
However, a group of grandmothers in Tumboboi Parish in Kaptanya Sub-county, Kapchorwa District, are reversing the trend.
The women, some as old as 28 years, formed the Tumboboi Grandmothers Group in 2014 to start a campaign against the vice.
The women started door-to-door campaigns, urging residents to stop the vice and also established Tumboboi Secondary School to allow their children continue their education.
At that time, the only secondary school was in Kapchorwa Town, which was faraway.
Ms Christine Tindibai, the chairperson of the group, who also suffered FGM in 1996, says they had to act or else the situation would worsen.
“Many of our daughters had dropped out of school after being mutilated. They would immediately get married once the wounds healed. We could not allow this to continue,” she says.
In 2012, a total of 280 women were mutilated in Kaptanya Sub-county, one of the highest numbers in the area, attracting public outrage.
The grandmothers also started sending back their children to school and saving Shs2,500 weekly which would be loaned to members.
“With the little money we got, we started paying school fees for our daughters and grandchildren. I have two daughters who dropped out of school at the age of 15 and 16 and got married. However, when we launched the campaigns, I sent my two daughters back to school,” Ms Tindibai says.
“One is now doing nursing in Bushenyi District and the other is pursuing accounting at UCC (Uganda College of Commerce) Tororo District. I am also paying for my grandchildren who are in nursery and primary schools,” she adds.
Ms Tindibai wants government to take over the management of the secondary school.
“Please tell the government to start paying the teachers and provide other facilities. We are poor and we cannot afford to pay the teachers so we need help,” she says.
Ms Irene Cheptoek, a 50-year-old grandmother, joined the campaign in 2015 after realising the pain of FGM and vowed that she would not allow another woman to go through the same.
“The situation had been terrible but when we joined the campaign, the situation changed. We have been going to different communities and schools to sensitise them about the dangers of FGM. Since we started it, our girls are now safe,” she says. Ms Cheptoek called for government support to effectively kick out the vice.
“Government should support the grandmothers’ group financially and also pay us salaries so that we can move to all the villages to fight FGM,” she says.
Ms Faltinna Kokop, 70, who had spent 25 years mutilating girls and women, stopped the practice after the husband of a woman she had mutilated almost killed her.
“One time a man refused her wife to be mutilated, but the woman insisted that I should do it. When I cut her, the husband came looking for me with bow and arrows and wanted to shoot me. I went into hiding and told myself if people don’t want it, then I must stop it. Around the same time, girls had also become rebellious and did not want to be cut. I also feared the law on FGM and eventually I stopped the practice completely,” she says.
“Before that, I had been making money from cutting the women and it was not easy, so these grandmothers convinced me to join their savings group, telling me that if I joined them, I would have access to group loan to solve my problems. Since then, I have been borrowing money and paying it back, and it has worked well,” she adds. She had mutilated a total of 508 women in the area.
Ms Kokop calls upon those who still harbour the desire to engage in FGM to abandon the vice.
“I am now a free person and everyone, including those who hated me are now free with me. I ask the surgeons and those who still want to practice FGM to stop because it’s a bad practice. There is a better life away from mutilation. Take your children to school, especially the girl child and empower them,” she says.
Ms Grace Chebet, a resident of Cheptelai in Kaptanya Sub-county, says their efforts are paying off.
“We sensitise the girls and the community about the dangers of FGM, but also encourage the girls to go back to school. I pay school fees for my three grandchildren and for their mothers. More girls are now able to go back to school,” the mother of 10 says. During the culture day celebrations in 2018, the association asked government to provide them with cheaper loans to boost their income.
The Speaker of Parliament, Ms Rebecca Kadaga, who presided over the function, informed the Microfinance Support Centre (MSC) about the request, which gave them Shs10m.
Mr Alfred Ejano Eboko, the credit manager at the MSC, says although the women are considered a high risk group for loan repayments, their decision to abandon FGM and start a campaign to send girls back to school was unique and needed support.
“With aggressive sensitisation, the grandmothers became advocates against FGM, promoting instead formal education of the girl child. They went an extra mile to form a savings and credit association, and turned to economic activities along the agricultural value chain as alternative livelihood sources, which we thought needed support,” he says.
“These grandmothers defied the stereotype of a people frail and unable to fend for themselves, moving MSC to approve the credit facility,” he adds.
Facts about FGM
Prevalence: According to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (2011), the FGM prevalence in Uganda stood at 1.4 per cent.
Effects: Although the procedure has no medical benefit, it can leave women with a lifetime of consequences. Women can face infections, a lack of sexual desire and difficulties in passing urine and faeces, studies have shown.
In the long term, they often report chronic pain and are significantly more likely to face life-threatening complications during childbirth such as Caesarean sections and haemorrhaging after birth, according to a 2006 study conducted in six countries and published in The Lancet medical journal.
Region: In Uganda, the practice is common among the Sabiny in Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween districts as well as the Pokot, Tepeth and Kadam in Nakapiripirit and Amudat districts.