Girls in Uganda report being lured across the border to undergo female genital mutilation

A delegation of  state ministers and district leaders speak with girls at the Kalas primary school in Amudat. The school is a safe haven for the girls fleeing female genital mutilation, child marriage or both. © UNFPA Uganda/Samuel Okiror
  • 26 October 2022

KARAMOJA/SEBEI, Uganda – Fourteen-year-old Judith* and five other Pokot girls were lured across the border, into Kenya from Uganda, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reason: To undergo female genital mutilation. The perpetrator: One of their friends.

“One of our friends hatched a plan. She lied and tricked us. She told us we were going to visit her grandmother across the border in Kenya,” said Judith, from the Kalas Girls Primary school in Amudat, a safe haven center for girls fleeing or rescued from female genital mutilation or child marriage.  

The two practices are deeply intertwined. Within the Pokot community, girls who have undergone female genital mutilation are deemed ready for marriage, and so are removed from school.

In this case, the friend was acting at the behest of her mother. In fact, many of the girls’ families were also supportive of female genital mutilation. Estimates from 2020 found that in six districts of Uganda where the practice is common, including Amudat, more than 26 per cent of women and girls, aged 15 to 49, have been subjected to female genital mutilation – the national average, by contrast, is 0.3 per cent.

In June of 2020, the five girls and their friend, who was also an adolescent, trekked barefoot for about 15 kilometres, from the Northeast Amudat District to Alale in Western Kenya, to visit the friend’s grandmother.

“We stayed there for over a week. One day we were taken to the gold mining site to work in order to get the money to pay the old woman. Luckily, someone tipped us off and leaked information to us that we had been brought to undergo female genital mutilation,” Judith said.

Increased vulnerability

Both female genital mutilation and child marriage are illegal in Uganda and Kenya, yet the practices persist and is perfomed underground because of deeply entrenched social norms.

“Three of us escaped and went to the area local chief who rescued us and took us to the assistant county commissioner. They rescued the other three girls. We were connected to the police in Amudat,” Judith described.

As of September 2021, the six girls, including the one who planned the trip due to the influence of her mother, were still living at the Kalas Girls Primary School. Many feared returning home because of concern that they would once more be pressured, or coerced, into undergoing female genital mutilation and subsequently married off.

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly increased the vulnerability of girls, delegates learned during a visit to the area late last year. The high-level visit brought ministers and members of the Parliamentary Committee on Gender, Labour and Social Development to the community to speak to locals about their experiences.

“We found out that there were increasing cases of [female genital mutilation], forced child marriage and teenage pregnancies during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said State Minister for Gender and Cultural Affairs Hon. Peace Mutuuzo. “When we outlawed FGM, the practice didn’t stop. It went underground."

While female genital mutilation and child marriage – both forms of gender-based violence – existed within the community before the outbreak of COVID-19, the pandemic exacerbated the practices. Schools were closed and increased/high levels of poverty in the remote region forced families  to seek to marry off their daughters.

Changing minds now

UNFPA and UNICEF are working with community leaders to address these concerns through the Joint Programme to End Female Genital Mutilation and the Global Programme to End Child Marriage. 

The Swedish International Development Agency, the EU Spotlight Initiative and the Global Programme on the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation supported the high-level visit, which collected evidence for lawmakers and policy officials.

“A number of policy documents and legal frameworks will be reviewed to address existing gaps so that we can come up with a complete plan and programmes to tackle gender-based violence cases,” said Hon. Flavia Kabahenda Rwabuhoro, chairperson of the Parliamentary Committee on Gender, Labour and Social Development.  

But laws alone will not address the issue, the ministers and delegates acknowledged. Budgets have to be allocated to solutions, education must be available for girls and attitudes must change. 

“We need to do a lot of sensitization on mindset change and we are starting it now,” Hon. Mutuuzo said.

*Name changed for privacy and protection

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