This story was originally published by Minority Africa and a shorter version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.
In the remote district of Kween, eastern Uganda, a powerful movement is growing. Women from various villages gather every Friday afternoon — a tradition they have upheld for the past two years — to confront a pressing issue within their community: female genital mutilation (FGM). The atmosphere during these gatherings is intense, yet hopeful.
Annet Chelengat, 38, a mother of six and one of the founding members of the Benet Masopo Community group is also the host of these gatherings, first created in 2020. The women, who have all been victims of female genital mutilation, discuss creative ways to fight the practice in the Sebei sub-regions.
“Advocating against FGM with these women has been both healing and empowering. Together, we are breaking the silence and reshaping the narrative of our community,” Chelengat explains.
FGM, also known as “female circumcision” is a ritual of cutting that is deeply ingrained in the culture of Kween and many parts of the world including Indonesia, Iraq, Yemen, and 27 African countries, and marks the transition from girlhood to womanhood. In Uganda, it was outlawed in 2010 through the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act. Perpetrators of this act face penalties, including imprisonment of up to 10 years. Internationally, it's recognized as a violation of human rights affecting approximately 200 million women globally, as reported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Hotspot districts in Uganda, like Kween, Kapchorwa, and Bukwo, share borders with Kenya.
In some communities, FGM is viewed as a prerequisite for marriage, yet the pain and lifelong health issues endured by women subjected to FGM are often overlooked, said Chelangat.
During a Benet Masopo Community group gathering, Chelengat recounts her horrifying experience, saying, “I was just a young girl, innocent and full of wonder when I first heard whispers of the impending ritual.”
She described what happened to her:
On the day of the ceremony, I was led to a secluded hut, my heart pounding loudly in my ears. The elders performed ancient rituals, and I could hear the distant beat of drums. As the moment approached, fear gripped me like a vice. I wanted to run away, to escape this fate, but tradition held me firmly in its grasp. The women surrounding me seemed solemn as if they bore the burden of this ritual, too. They held my hands, and as I lay down, the pain began.
According to Chelengat, the pain was like no other, a pain that sliced through her very being.
I felt violated, stripped of something sacred, and the tears flowed freely. I wanted to scream, to let the world know of the injustice I was enduring, but I remained silent, as the women who went before me had done.
The women gathered have all witnessed first-hand the pain, trauma, and enduring health complications that result from this harmful practice. Their mission is to raise awareness, challenge ingrained cultural norms, and work towards the abandonment of the tradition of FGM. They are resolute in their determination to create a safer, healthier, and more empowered future for the next generation of girls.
Judith Amonsho, founder of another women’s group fighting FGM, the Jericho Women’s Group located in Kapchorwa, was circumcised in 1976 at the age of 18. She said in the past, not being circumcised was associated with limitations. “We believed that if you were not circumcised, you would be cursed. You could even cook food, and it wouldn’t get ready.”
Amonsho, in collaboration with the Jericho Women’s Group, engages in income-generating initiatives. She emphasizes that poverty, alongside cultural roots, drives FGM, as parents may offer their children for cutting in exchange for gifts or money.
“We make crafts for sale. It is also one of my coping mechanisms. I sit here in my wheelchair and make a mat or weave a basket,” Amonsho says.
Today, she and the other women in Jericho Women’s Group encourage young girls around their communities to prioritize education. Upon returning home from school, the girls collect the materials to create art and crafts to keep busy.
Since the inception of her advocacy group, Chalenagti has witnessed significant improvements in her area and neighboring districts. The group primarily focuses on sharing information, educating young girls about the dangers of FGM, and raising awareness through craft and drama.
“Most of our girls are now pursuing education, and others are engaged in church activities. Some are into weaving, which wasn’t the case previously,” she notes.
“Back then, when FGM was highly practiced, parents used to give their girls for cutting in exchange for gifts,” says Kokopu Sarah, another community member. “But through activism, girls are now engaged in activities like weaving and selling baskets to earn money.”
The group has taken this initiative to three districts, including Kween, Bukwo, and Kapchorwa. All these efforts have not been without challenges. According to Chalenagti, their journey towards fighting against the practice of FGM in their community has not been easy, especially in the beginning because of little support from some members of the community, particularly the women leaders.
“We want to see this practice fade away, especially in the hotspot areas, but we cannot do much unless the government gives us a platform,” she emphasizes.
However, the limited support has not deterred the women from pushing on with the fight against the “evil practice” that has profoundly impacted many young girls in the region.
I remember we started with five women, but now we are more than 100 women in this village. We have many women's groups in the other surrounding districts who have joined the cause, and we are progressing well so far.
To date, the Benet Masopo Community group has more than 100 members. While the group initially began as a women’s clique, men are now also welcome and some have joined.
“Today, I stand here as a survivor, a voice for change, and a symbol of resilience,” Chelengat says. “The road ahead is still long, but I know that with courage and unity, we can create a future where harmful traditions no longer hold us captive.”