25 November 2017

The Pokot in East-Uganda and traditional harmful practices

Guest Blog by Dorian Cosijnse.

Uganda is one of the 28+ countries where Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is practised. The estimated prevalence lingers around 1.4% amongst women in the age of 15 till 49. Although this national figure is relatively low, prevalence amongst the Pokot tribe in the Eastern part of the country is near-universal (95%) ¹. This guest blog is written in Amudat, a district in the Karamoja region, and aims to give an insight in the harmful cultural practice of FGM amongst this unique tribe in East-Uganda.

The Karamoja region in Uganda was poorly accessible for a long time, meanwhile life continued secluded from the rest of the country. The area, which was characterized by cattle-raiding, violence, instability and unrest, has now returned to relative peace, thanks to the government disarmament programme, which facilitated the removal of illegal guns. With prevailing peace, migration has greatly reduced and people are settling in their original villages and continuing to rebuild their lives through engagement in socio-economic activities.


It is through the secluded and fragile background of the area, that for a long time, the Pokot’s strong patriarchal cultural system and practices remained unchallenged. The government and development actors were unable to reach the community with the anti-FGM message. When assessing the development needs in post-conflict Karamoja, the sensitization and mobilization of the community against negative cultural practices like FGM, domestic violence and early/forced marriage became top-listed.


In the Pokot culture, the role of men, women and youth are clearly defined. Women and girls perform most of the household activities and are responsible for taking care of the children and labouring in the garden. They are traditionally discouraged from actively participating in family and community decision-making processes. Although there are signs of women sitting freely with men and Gender Based Violence (GBV) to be reducing along with the number of wives per men, the inequality still remains. Gender equality continues to be a challenge due to the persistent patriarchal norms and values that do not favour the Pokot women, and the suppression of the rights of women and children, whom are seen as the property of men.


FGM and early/forced marriage (EFM) of girls as young as 10 to 12 years old are deeply rooted in the culture, and the Pokot do not appreciate these practices as a violation of human rights or as denial to informed consent and decision making. FGM is traditionally viewed as beneficial for girls as it preserves a girl’s chastity and fertility and is considered a prerequisite for an honourable marriage. For example: the average dowry for a circumcised girl is 30 cows, or the equivalent value in goats or camels. The dowry for an uncircumcised girl is significantly lower, suppose there would be willingness to pay. The practice of FGM largely thrives on myths, such as; 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, uncircumcised women do not give birth, etc. Uncut girls are despised by their family and/or the community, consequently facing social exclusion.


As a result of concerted efforts from development partners (through anti-FGM campaigns) and the government’s anti-FGM Act 2010, communities are gradually changing their attitude towards these practices. Not only has the FGM practice moved outside the community, there is also increasing community vigilance against FGM. The cases recorded by ZOA (an INGO) and the police show a decline in open practice by over 60%. Where the practice of FGM used to be a public ceremony during the rainy season, celebrated with singing, dancing and presents, it is now conducted in private, preferably in a secret place which is inaccessible to modern means of transport. In addition to the "secretisation" of FGM, it is widely believed that Ugandan girls cross to neighbouring Kenya to undergo FGM, where the enforcement of the 2011 anti-FGM law is generally weaker. Additionally, Kenyan surgeons are believed to be crossing the border to conduct FGM in Uganda.


In order to effectively pursue law enforcement, cooperation between Community-Based Organizations (CBO’s), NGO’s, the local government, the army and the police remain of paramount importance. Therefore, meetings are held quarterly to discuss law-enforcement and the fight against FGM in the Karamoja region. The legal and institutional mechanism to address cases of FGM exist, but their effectiveness is constrained by various challenges, including: inadequate supportive funds from the government, insufficient personnel to effectively respond to FGM cases, a lack of evidence required to handle FGM cases conclusively, a lack of access to courts of law due to long distances, a loss of interest in cases by witnesses due to long legal processes and fears of family and/or community reprisal.

In order to discuss the aforementioned cross-border challenges, ZOA organized the first cross-border meeting in September 2016. The meeting was attended by NGOs and Ugandan and Kenyan legislative and executive bodies. These cross-border meetings are essential in the battle against FGM, since the Pokot move freely between the two countries. If nothing is done to prevent this cross-border “FGM-trafficking”, the situation will grow even worse, and its effects will continue to undermine the achieved gains in Eastern Uganda.


Since FGM is such a deep-rooted cultural practice, it is necessary to develop interventions that address the problem beyond the legal approach. This is pursued by broadcasting radio-talk shows and working through children- and community parliaments, women’s associations, key figures in the communities, primary school teachers and counsellors, male and female role-models, religious leaders, elders, etc. Within this holistic approach, surgeons are for example encouraged to “drop their knife”, and receive assistance to seek alternative means of living. Simultaneously, religious leaders are trained to preach about the negative impact of (gender-based) violence and FGM. In Amudat, churches are growing and spreading through the region and persuade people to attend meetings and to change their negative cultural practices.


An example which clearly emphasizes the need for a multifaceted approach is the story of a former surgeon. She pretended to have abandoned the practice of cutting girls, in order to receive sponsorship from ZOA. When ZOA organized a follow-up with the reformed surgeon 2 years later, she declared that she actually just recently abolished the practice, because the pastor in her church preached about FGM and the “spilling of innocent blood” during Sunday’s prayers. Her story clearly re-emphasizes the importance of cooperating with different stakeholders in the process of ending traditional harmful practices, such as FGM.


Monogamy, reduced GBV and FGM and healthy marriages are promoted throughout the communities and in primary schools. Pupils debate about these socio-cultural topics, and gain essential knowledge. As an unintended outcome of the increased awareness, children started to seek protection in the boarding facilities at Kalas primary school. The boys escape their predestined life as a cattle-herder, and the girls escape FGM and/or early/forced marriage. Besides providing a safe haven, counsellors actively seek to reconcile the escapees with their families.


With all these efforts in place, it is envisaged that law-enforcement and sensitization campaigns will eventually result in the abolishment of FGM, EFM and other negative cultural practices amongst the Pokot in Karamoja, and hopefully in the improved situation and rights of girls and women in the Eastern region of Uganda.


ZOA Uganda produced a short film about FGM amongst the Pokot, entitled “Cut That Thing”. Watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U4NkbMeghw&feature=share&list=UUUWnM9OaReIcjKl_6wnuywg

¹ The Pokot practice FGM type 3, also referred to as pharaonic circumcision or infibulation. This involves the excision (removal) of all of the external genitalia–clitoris, inner lips (labia minora) and outer lips (labia majora). The stumps of the labia are then fixed together with only a small hole left for urination and menstruation. Before sexual intercourse and birth, the vagina is opened again through a very painful process.