When pokot men said ‘no’ to female genital mutilation

Girls undergoing the painful circumcision. Although the ritual is taken a passage into womanhood, human rights activists and Ugandan law say it infringes on women’s rights.

On February 6, Dominick Lotolim and a friend bravely stood in front of the crowd flashing a big placard advocating for zero tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation.
Although female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) is a popular practice in their community –the Pokot, the two men seemed not bothered to talk about it as they displayed a poster reading, “Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation/cutting; engage communities to fight FGM/C”. They boldly displayed it on either sided to ensure that everybody at the gathering reads the massage. Suddenly, a group of women joined them dancing and singing songs that denounce the practice, prompting the congregation to cheer.

When men shun circumcised women
Lotolim, a husband of two wives, says he chose to advocate against the practice after getting problems with his first circumcised wife. “Just like any other man in the community, I was in support of FGM until I married a circumcised woman. We always had problems whenever we had a child because she could not deliver normally. Each time she would give birth, she would be cut and the wound could take ages to cure,” Mr Lotolim, a resident of Jumbe village in Amudat District, explains.

Besides, the pain she would experience while having a baby was too expensive for us since medical bills would shoot to heights we could not afford,” he explains. He was forced to marry a second wife who was not circumcised, enabling him to spot dangers of FGM. Interestingly, both his wives, Rhoda and Suzan, have joined him in publicly condemning the practice.

FGM/C is the procedure of total or partial removal of female genitalia. While in Uganda it is practiced by less than one per cent of the total population, the percentage is high among the communities in the Eastern and Uganda where 95 per cent of Pokot and 50 per cent of Sabiny women undergo circumcision. Reports also indicate that FGM is widely practiced among the Tepeth in Moroto.

For many women and girls, FGM is forced on them against their will. Because it is a deeply rooted cultural tradition, they are raised into accepting that it is a rite of passage into womanhood and a condition for marriage.

In the Pokot and Tepeth communities, girls are cut at the age of 12 and 14 and after circumcision, they are married off. According to Peter Lokor, Pokot Zonal Integrated Development Programme team leader, the practice was adopted by their ancestors many years ago to protect women from committing adultery when husbands are away from home. “Besides protecting them from committing adultery, the ritual was perceived as adding value to girls or women,” Lokor says.

For the Tepeth, according to Claudias Lorika who works with ASB –Moroto, they copied the practice from the Pokot in the 1990s. Lorika expounds that as the two pastoralist communities shared resources (pasture and water) during dry seasons in the 90s, they ended up intermarrying. “Through intermarriages, the Tepeth adopted the practice to strengthen the bond,” she adds.

Unlike the Sabiny who only circumcise in even years, the Pokot and Tepeth cut their girls every year from July to December. Statistics from Aumdat District show that 95 per cent of the girls don’t complete primary seven due to FGM.

However, although the ritual is observed as a rite of passage into womanhood and a condition for marriage to those communities, human rights activists say it infringes women’s human rights.

Janet Jackson, United Nations Population Fund Country Representative, says FGM causes physical and psychological problems, which can last a lifetime for women and girls.
“Besides the physical pain, it is a big threat to their reproductive health and well-being.

When the woman is cut, it can cause shock and prolonged breeding,” Jackson says
She adds that sometimes the cut can become infectious and in the long run, it can spark off a whole range of gynecological problems, including fistula and complication during child birth.

Meanwhile, since the country enacted the FGM Act in 2009, the practice is steadily subsiding. Lokor says there is a positive trend towards abandoning female circumcision in the region and many people including elders have taken efforts to dialogue with their kinsmen and kinswomen to drop the practice.

He adds that with support from international humanitarian organisation like UNFPA and Unicef in partnership with the French government, residents have been sensitised about FGM dangers and advised to take their girls to school as a new alternative of adding them value than undergoing FGM. “This approach is paying off, with incidences of FGM steadily declining in the past one year,” Lokor notes.

Ambrose Merian, AMREACH programme coordinator, explains that in 2011, only 169 girls were cut compared to 317 and over 500 that were circumcised in 2010 and 2009 respectively. Merian says 389 girls (some from Kenya) were rescued and eight people including three mutilators were arrested. All cases are currently in court.

No mercy for mutilators
“More women are stepping out to say no to FGM and over 30 mutilators (cutters) have denounced the practice and even changed their names. One in Katikekile sub-county was cursed to death by the community after she vowed to continue with the job,” he adds.

In July 2011, during the Pokot Cultural Day, 36 community leaders from three parishes in the Pokot Sub-region, including local council members, religious leaders, Kraal leaders, signed a declaration to advocate against the practice.

Although Margaret Akiria, who was once a mutilator, suggests that those still cutting be supported with incentives as a token to abandon the practice, Jackson rejects the idea.
She says research carried out worldwide over the matter indicate that once the incentives are over, the women revert to their old days.