Stella Chelengat holds her one-year-old baby as she attends baking classes at Takumo primary school, Kween district.
Attempts by the baby to grab its mother’s protruding breast are futile because she is engrossed in the lesson to entertain any distractions.
Joining 19 other girls, the 23-year-old mother of two every day meets here for lessons on how to make confectioneries.
But the women here are not only taught how to make bread alone. At Takumo Bakery project, the girls and young women are told about all the ills of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Luckily for them they haven’t had the harrowing experience unlike Beatrice Chepotyek, their trainer, who was cut in 1990 when she was just 18 years old.
Although 27 years have passed since that dreadful incident, the mother of 10 still remembers the cold morning when they dragged her out of her father’s house, spread her legs and cut out parts of her vagina.
“With the support of my mother-in-law, they spread my legs and cut off my labia and it was really a painful experience. Blood shot up during the exercise and they said I had bad omen and my husband would die soon,” recalls Chepotyek as she displays the two marks on her right upper hand, a sign that she was cut.
The 45-year-old observes that because of FGM, she has had to endure extra pain since all her 10 children have been delivered through caesarian section. Today, she can no longer engage in penetrative sex because of the risk of tearing her scars.
“If it weren’t for FGM,” she says, “perhaps my sister would not have to endure the pain of not bearing a child.”
Chepotyek’s sister has also turned into an activist against FGM. Chelengat and the other girls and women have heard of Chepotyek’s and a lot many other people’s terrifying experiences. None of them wishes to undergo FGM.
Despite pressure from family members to undergo the gruesome cultural rite of passage, they have refused and vow never to accept being cut.
“I don’t want FGM because it is associated with many problems. My mother and mother-in-law wanted me to cut but my husband refused,” confesses the mother of two.
Unlike Chelengat who has the support of her husband, most women and girls in the border eastern district of Bukwo aren’t similarly fortified.
Here, local leaders say husbands and parents whisk their wives and daughters in the wee-hours of the night into Kenya.
While there, they undergo FGM and only get back to Uganda after proper healing so that they avoid being detected.
The Kalenjin community across the border in Kenya are ethnically related to Uganda’s Sabiny and Pokot amongst whom FGM is practiced.
Willington Mukhwana, the Bukwo LC-V vice-chairperson, observes that ever since the enactment of the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010, the practice has declined in Uganda because of enforcement.
However, he notes that a few people still practice the vice and notes that there have been various reports indicating that women are cut immediately after delivering.
“FGM/C has gone clandestine and it’s in those remote places that are hard to access. But even in these areas, they don’t practice it openly. Instead, they cross into neighbouring Kenya where the cutting is done,” says Mukhwana before adding that there are five FGM hotspots in the district. These are Kortok, Riwo, Kaptererwo, Kabu, and Chepkwasta.
For ASP Richard Ayena, the Bukwo police Criminal Investigations Department officer, reveals that no formal case against FGM has been reported for the one last year.
He explains that the trends indicate that the practice is dying out because if it was still there, the well-networked community policing officers would be able to detect and report to authorities.
“Punishment for engaging in FGM is stiff and people are scared. Still, urbanisation and sensitization have led them to realize that the vice is outdated,” observes Ayena.
In 2005, the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey revealed that the FGM prevalence rate stood at 1.4 per cent, an indication that sensitization efforts were reaping fruits. FGM monitoring results in Kapchorwa depict a fall in the trend over the past 10 years from 900 in 1990 to 120 in 2012.
Currently, Kapchorwa district officials say that no single FGM-related case has recently been recorded. The trend is the same in Kween and Bukwo.
Being a resident in one of the hotspots in Bukwo, Paul Kipsang, a 42-year-old resident of Kutung village in Kabei sub-county, argues that government needs to support the reformed ‘surgeons’ (mostly old women who perform the vicious cut).
He stresses that because of not having income-generating jobs, some former surgeons are tempted to revert to their old, bad ways simply to earn a living.
Kipsang observes that although the law is in place, the political will is still lacking as most leaders are afraid of talking about FGM. Many politicians fear that speaking out would affect their chances during elections. The father of four emphasizes the need for more sensitisation and urges dialogue between communities.
“Sensitisation efforts like the FGM Marathon have made many people realise that FGM is bad but then more needs to be done by government. They should engage communities through various religious leaders because these are the institutions that first taught people that FGM is out-dated,” says Kipsang.
In collaboration with Church of Uganda and other local NGOs, the United Nations Population Fund has been able to conduct seminars between local leaders, the clergy, law enforcers and the communities. Through efforts like the FGM Marathon, where hundreds of athletes participate, even communities in remote areas are learning that the vice is out-dated and needs to be kicked out.
As a response to FGM going clandestine, the governments of Kenya and Uganda, through the East African Community cooperation, are in the process of making laws that will enable police pursue perpetrators across borders.
Local police through informants in communities keep monitoring the situation and are ready to apprehend anyone suspected of practicing FGM.
But as Kennedy Adolla Otiti, the Kween resident district commander, says, “FGM is a deep-rooted culture that cannot be wiped in one go. But one day, we hope we shall end it.”