Uganda: FGM Resurgence - There Is Need to Change Social Norms and Beliefs

In Ethiopia, "uncut girls’ clubs" have been formed, in which girls help to educate their peers, encourage families to exchange their views on FGM, and speak up for girls’ rights in the community.
25 January 2019

Media reports have been awash with stories about the resurgence of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the Sebei sub-region, with the highest number of victims reported coming from Kween District. Unconfirmed estimates have put the number of those mutilated at nearly 400. The nation is visibly shocked because many thought the practice was a thing of the past. To many observers, it may seem like after the enactment of the FGM Act in 2010, FGM ended.

After the law became operational, the authorities began arresting individuals involved in the practice in order to send a clear message that the practice is a public health problem and a gross violation of rights! Healthcare practitioners and activists applauded the quick actions of the authorities. Much as the approach seemed to work, it is important to note that such deep rooted practices do not disappear overnight. The communities that practice FGM cherish it as an important rite of passage that defines a woman's social status. Women and girls who have not undergone FGM are often stigmatised.

Because of these social realities, outlawing the practice without transforming social norms, beliefs and behaviours that perpetuate it, drove the practice underground rather than stopping it. To avoid being arrested, community members changed the times and sites of cutting; they became discreet about it by avoiding the public festivities done prior to and after the cuttings. When activists or duty bearer's talk to key leaders and community members about the FGM practice, oftentimes they tell them what they want to hear. They often say: "The practice ended long time ago in our area. However, it is still being done in the neighbouring villages."

Yet when one deepens the conversation as the rapport builds up, they will express attitudes, views and actions that indicate that they too still cherish this deep rooted practice. They inwardly as a community have been resistant to making the much needed changes. These actions are explained by the popular myths and norms highlighted in the text box that inform the community's perceptions, beliefs and behaviour. Sadly, many duty bearers still harbour similar myths and stereotypes. For example, some healthcare workers and police officers within these communities still believe that FGM is a vital traditional practice that must happen.

Some health workers think that they can use their sterilised equipment to cut so as to minimise the health risks, while police offices will tend to look on helplessly as the practice is done even when they hear of suspected incidents. Rather than them playing a preventive role, they will claim that there is no complainant or that they lack the resources to follow up on these suspected crimes.

Results from a 2018 formative research conducted by Center for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) in Kween and Moroto districts indicated that quite often, community members portray FGM as a practice with mystical powers that brings abundant blessings to the family and the community . At the same time, they believe that not doing it leads to family and community disasters such as still births, barrenness and famine thus the social pressure for the girls to undergo FGM, explaining why severe social sanctions for those who have not undergone the cutting are in place. Such family and social pressure compels the girls and women to undergo the cutting so that they are socially and culturally right and accepted in their communities.

"If you were married before circumcision, you will be forced to do it at some time" (male community member, Binyiny). Because of this high tolerance of the FGM practice, it was also learnt that the age at which girls are being cut has changed from when they are teenagers to cutting after they have been married off.

Currently, the cutters (mainly traditional birth attendants and older women), are also big beneficiaries of FGM activities because of the reputation they gain, the material gifts given to them and most importantly, the social ties they develop with the families of the successful candidates. Because of the revered status of the cutters, their actions are not questioned. They are responsible for the identification of the uncut girls and women and reminding their relatives to prepare the women and girls for cutting and as well as setting the schedules for the cutting as was the case with the most recent occurrences in Binyiny Town Council, Kween District (the practice also occurred in other sub-counties such as Kitawoi, Kaproron, Kaptum and Kwosir).

Where the community suspects that security agencies such as the police are taking keen interest in what may be happening, the cutters refer the uncut women and their families to the traditional birth-attendants that cut the women during child birth. These team of cutters are hesitant to disclose information about the practice of FGM, they often say the practice is no longer in their community because it was criminalised.

The risk factors include a person's developmental history and attitudes or beliefs; their relationships and household dynamics; community factors such as social norms and levels of poverty; and macro-level factors such as gender regime and market forces that affect realities at all the other levels. Therefore, preventing FGM calls for urgent transformation of the social norms and beliefs that perpetuate and sustain it as well as response actions to support the survivors as well as holding of the perpetrators of FGM accountable for their actions.

This means that interventions must work with the entire community across the ecological model. The interventions need to be intensive enough to address the myths and stereotypes, challenge the unequal power dynamics.

Once the community recognise FGM as an injustice, they will not tolerate it and they will come up with new norms that stop the practice. They will also use the FGM Act to protect the women and girls.

Ms Musuya is the executive director of CEDOVIP.

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