Change maker Stellah Kolemuk

Our colleague Stellah Kolemuk explains about the harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation. Stellah is 31 years old and has five children; three boys and two girls. She was born and raised in Amudat, a district located in Eastern Uganda. A place is inhabited by the Pokot, a traditional pastoralist tribe. 

How is life in Amudat? ”Amudat is still underdeveloped, but is slowly making progress since the disarmament in 2008. Before the disarmament, conflict, cattle-raids and looting were common, and Amudat was very insecure. The presence of ZOA is very important for the development of this area, to help the Pokot in meeting their livelihood needs. ZOA focuses on food security, hygiene, access to safe water and education. We are also active in the fight against a dangerous tradition called Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). Girls and women suffer from severe infections, heavy (sometimes deadly) bleeding, complications during intercourse and labor, and are at risk of HIV/Aids as a result of this bad cultural practice.”

To what extend is FGM still a problem in Uganda? Since it is prohibited by law..? “The Ugandan government passed a law in 2010 making FGM an illegal practice. The law caused the practice of FGM to decrease. Most people have come to understand the legal implications of FGM, as a result of continuous sensitization by the government and development partners. But eradicating an ages-old practice is a gradual process. A change in mindset and behavior doesn’t occur in a day. It is predominantly deep in the communities where FGM is still very common.”

Can you tell us something about the ritual of FGM? “FGM used to take places during a ceremony, involving feasting, drinking, dancing and exchange of gifts. Members of the community looked forward to it! But this has changed, because the population fears to be caught by the police. There are examples of surgeons and/or parents being arrested and taken to prison or forced to pay a fine as a result of FGM. Nowadays, the cutting of young girls takes place in secret, often across the border in Kenya, where law enforcement is weaker. This change in practice makes it more difficult for the police to arrest the perpetrators.”

Why is FGM still practiced by the Pokot? “Like I said before, FGM has been practiced for ages, as a rite the passage to adulthood. The practice largely thrives on myths, that have been passed on from generation to generation and internalized by our people. They say that uncircumcised women and girls smell and whatever they touch gets dirty, a man that sleeps with an uncircumcised woman gets dirty, uncircumcised women cannot control their sexual desire, and worst of all; uncircumcised women do not give birth. But most of us believe it comes from the husbands desire to control his wife’s sexual freedom. In the early days, men would go to raid cattle for periods of three months, leaving their wives behind. They feared to find their wives impregnated by other men upon return, and performed FGM as a means of controlling women’s sexual desire while being away. To conclude, there are many reasons behind the  practice of FGM.

Education is the key to development in this community!

I was told that girls and women also harrass uncircumcised women and girls? “In the Pokot culture, girls graduate from childhood to womanhood when undergoing FGM. It is actually a sign that a girl is ready for marriage at whatever age it is performed, although most girls are cut between the ages of 6 -14 years. This means that an uncircumcised women is perceived as a child, and her opinion is not taken seriously. Uncircumcised Pokot girls and women are also considered to be dirty and smelly. They can be ridiculted and rebuked by other women in the community. This often leads to social pressure on the uncircumcised woman or girl to get cut” (see this short sensitization video produced by ZOA).

What is the value of a circumcised girl? 10, 20 or 30 cows? “Paying dowry is part of our culture. It a way for a man to appreciate the efforts of the girls’ parents for her good upbringing. The dowry for a circumcised or uncircumcised girl is the same, but traditionally men prefer to marry a circumcised girl. This is however becoming less important; by now, men have also come to appreciate a marriage with an uncircumcised girl.”

To what extend can ZOA contribute to reducing FGM in Amudat? “ZOA has achieved a lot through community sensitization. Most Pokot are aware of the dangers of FGM, through sensitization by ZOA, religious leaders, role models advocating against FGM, teachers, local leaders, doctors and midwives, and the Child and Family Protection Unit (CFFPU) of the police. Besides sensitization, we offer girls rescued from FGM or Early Forced Marriage (FGM) the opportunity to go to school, where they can learn (to advocate for) their rights. Education is the key to development in this community. Schoolgoing girls are rarely circumcised. Education promotion and the fight against child marriage and FGM are therefore closely linked. That is one of the reasons why we aim to increase the current school enrolment (23%) in Amudat.”

What are your future dreams for Amudat? “I hope that our Pokot people will have a better future, one with peace, safety and development. A FGM-free future, in which girls, boys, women and men are equally valued, and in which girls have the opportunity to marry a husband of their choice. That is the future I want for my children.”