Irene’s story, Uganda

Photos by © Sumy Sardurni

Prevention of GBV

At the age of 17 – young and in love – Irene from Kapchorwa, a rural area in Southwestern Uganda, got married. Little did she know, a year later her life would change drastically and painfully forever. Due to pressure from her family and community, in the name of ‘purity’, and out of the need to save her young marriage, Irene underwent Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), commonly practised on so many young girls before and after her. Irene is now one of a group of grandmothers working to end the practice of FGM — and they are making a difference. This is Irene’s story.

Twenty years after being mutilated, years of unbearable and needless pain, Irene, a survivor, is a leading advocate against FGM. She now helps to organise a collective of women known as ”The Tumboboi Grandmother’s Group” who meet in front of her home each week. These women fight relentlessly against FGM in the area, often remembering and replaying their own harrowing experiences of mutilation as children.

“The worst part about being mutilated is giving birth, as everything rips and has to be sewn back together each time.”

Irene speaks to Florence, a former cutter and now fighter against FGM, about the day she was mutilated. Florence shows the knife she used for cutting, something she always knew deep down was wrong. Another woman reveals four marks on her arm, a common scar on the left arm of victims, indicating they could marry and be accepted by society.

Whilst it is painful, the act of remembering and not shying away from the brutality and the lasting impact of FGM is an important part of how these women survive and educate the next generation. Communicating their stories has helped to almost completely eradicate the practice in this area of Uganda.      

“As a man, I’m ashamed that I witnessed FGM for so many years and did nothing about it, but now I’m a strong advocate and educate other men on why it’s harmful.”

Irene’s husband, Joseph, who is now an advocate against FGM

Tumboboi School in Irene’s village was initially built to educate children about the harmful practices of FGM. Due to a lack of resources, it is currently run by volunteer teachers committed to empowering youth to stop FGM.

These are drawings on the wall of the school building used to educate children about the harmful impacts of FGM.

A small detour on Irene’s regular hike into town is Ngaimbiriv Cave, a place her ancestors inhabited many centuries ago. It also served as a site for FGM rituals, where up to twenty girls would line up on the ground, face up, as they waited their turn to be cut while the whole village watched. Screaming or moving during the mutilation was considered a sign of weakness where worse consequences could face the girls. Because FGM is now illegal in Uganda, the cutting is done in secret and the rituals are not as dramatic or public.

The remoteness of Irene’s village is part of its beauty, but also part of its struggle. In order to buy or sell products people must hike for two hours up a mountain to the nearest town. Its isolation also contributes to the difficulty of completely eradicating FGM, as it’s often done in hiding. Reproductive Health Uganda continues to work hard to provide essential sexual health services and end the practice of FGM in this remote area.

Belief in FGM is often a strong part of cultural identity in this region. As a result, faith leaders like Reverend Paul Kipto Masaba, second Bishop of Sebei Diocese in Kapchorwa, have played a significant role in influencing cultural beliefs and values to end the practice of FGM, such as through anti-FGM messaging used during prayer times. There are now over 20 trained faith leaders who are championing the campaign against FGM in this district and alongside Irene and The Tumboboi Grandmother’s Group.

“There is now hope that FGM will no longer be in our community and our daughters and granddaughters will finally be safe.”

Irene’s story is part of Prevention+, a five-year GBV prevention programme led by Rutgers and in collaboration with the MenEngage Alliance, Promundo and Sonke Gender Justice, as well as with partners in Uganda, Rwanda, Indonesia and the MENA region. Reproductive Health Uganda is the country partner driving the implementation of this project. You can find more information about this programme here.

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