By Sabila Benjamin Mark
I am born and bred in patriarchal Africa; so naturally the kind of values I cherish are from a masculine perspective. I have been brought up to believe that women are secondary beings – the kind whose interests come after men’s. My orientation in life has been that women should exist to serve men’s interests.
Growing up, I was led to understand that a woman is weak – she plays “weak” games, she cries, she performs basic activities, she can be bought at a ‘price’ – basically a pure servant and nothing else. In my community a woman is regarded as a “lekweet” – a child – who is not supposed to sit with elders or one who should have no opinion whatsoever. In fact, women in our area are supposed to rotate around the three precincts – Kitchen, garden, bedroom and lately the labour ward – and this influenced my position on women for over three decades of my life.
I was brought up in a typical violent household – the kind where sticks and beatings were not very far away at any given time. My father is a classic African man who believes in the superiority of the male sex. Growing up, he was the law at home – a former Police officer in the 1970s, he worked for the now infamous State Research Bureau – a militant wing of Uganda Police under Idi Amin whose primary objective was to torture the ‘enemies of the state’. This experience increased my father’s ability and comfort in using torture as way of instilling ‘discipline’. As long as he was at home, beating was part of the diet for me and my siblings – He beat us for pretty much anything and everything – from wetting the bed, losing a pencil on the way back from school, delaying at the river and for even failing to pronounce a Kupsabiny word correctly. The main recipient of these beatings was my mother. She was beaten almost on a weekly basis. Between the age of four and thirteen, the number of times I saw my mother were countable – I remember a time when she was away for almost three years – these were the most trying moments of my life. I was angry, hungry, dirty and sad often. I survived at the mercy of a neighbor – to whom I am eternally grateful to. I actually consider her my second mother. Mama Jesca, as I call her, stepped in as the mother figure in my life. She fed me, loved me and executed every duty that was required of a mother – In fact every time I go to my village, I metamorphose into a suckling in the arms of two women.
Growing up with female genital mutilation/cutting
It is early morning, almost 7:30am on one of the days of the first week of December 1990. I am a young naughty, but adventurous lad. The circumcision season is almost at its peak. There are ceremonies in many homes; celebrating the coming of age of their boys and girls – it is as if the different homesteads are competing to have the best ceremony in the area; customary music, drink and dancing pervade the place and I am on a mission – I want to witness the cutting of our neighbor’s daughter – Kissa. She is the first born of the old mzee Reuben and all eyes are on her. She must not blink when the knife strikes. Kissa is one of 12 girls due for ‘wonseet’ (circumcision) that morning. She is the first on the queue and thousands of people are gathered in her father’s compound – friends, relatives, clan members, etc. The old Mzee Reuben has a machete in his hand – should Kissa blink during the ritual, he is most likely to cut her. He is swearing at his daughter. “If you blink, you are as good as dead. Kissa you will not shame me. You must withstand the knife just like me and your mother. My clan does not produce cowards,” the old mzee can be heard barking at her daughter.
Being young and small, I have slithered through the thousands of human beings gathered at the venue and have made it to the front. I can see Kissa at arm’s length. I am terrified. My heart is pumping. With this front-row view, I can hear all sorts of threats and wailing. Kissa has little choice. She cannot afford to disappoint mzee’s guests.
Among the Sabiny/Kalenjin, one has to undergo certain rituals to become an adult. Both men and women have to lose part of their bodies to be considered adults. For the men, the foreskin of their penises are cut. The women’s clitoris and labia are cut – what is now termed as female genital mutilation/cutting.
Kissa does not disappoint. When the cutter (surgeon) approaches her, she falls on the ground, opens her legs and raises her hands straight. Her eyes do not blink. The cutter pours millet flour into her vagina and then grabs her clitoris. She pulls it hard and the cuts its and throws it in a plate. Kissa is motionless. She is a real hero. The cutter then cuts part of her labia and finishes the procedure. Everyone is relieved. Kissa then starts receiving gifts in form of money, hens, cows, goats, hens, sheep, etc. The other 11 girls follow suit. They do not blink to the sharp hot knife. I witness the entire process.
Since then I have witnessed hundreds if not thousands of girls undergo the ritual. In fact, until three years ago, I saw nothing wrong with female genital cutting. To me it was a normal ritual for my community – a reason for celebration and fostering community ties.
Joining SASA! Activism
I have always thought of myself as an activist. From primary school, I was not very far from hot arguments – the kind that raised dust and attracted attention of passers-by. One could say I have always had a liking for the eccentric. In the past, my casuistic alignments earned me a spot-on ferocious debate on Uganda Television (UTV) in 1998, then a 12-year-old. Studying English literature at University only strengthened this bias. It was no surprise that in 2014, in front of a fairly proficient and fair panel, I beat a competition of 83 others to join New Vision – Uganda’s leading media House – as a copy editor. Naturally, I enjoyed the job – the kind where you are an expert in everything – from editing, writing, copy design and photo editing. One also had to be an expert on every topic – Politics, religion, sex etc.
However, reading stories and designing them for print on a daily basis quickly tired me out. My work-shift sometimes stretched up to 15 hours. My eyes quickly became hazy – forcing me to wear glasses. The monotony of computer and mouse pushed me to look a cause that I could pick up and run with. The excitement of the newsroom was no longer what I thought it was.
In November 2017, an advert run in the Thursday edition of the New Vision. The call by the Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP) was for applications for a Programme Officer – Local Activism based in Kween district. A colleague alerted me of the advert, saying CEDOVIP was a cream-of-the-crop organization when it came to Gender-based violence prevention. I was excited because this would take me back to my cradleland to pursue a cause – Not that I knew much about Gender-based violence.
I was lucky – CEDOVIP shortlisted me for the interviews. The first interview required a 35-minute presentation. I chose a topic on mobilizing community members to join their efforts to prevent Female genital mutilation. It was tough because I had not done anything of this nature before. The presentation and the oral interviews were challenging as well as exciting. The CEDOVIP panel treated me with a lot of courtesy. They were full of positive energy and helpful every step of the way. The interview did not focus on making one fail but to help him/ her to be at their best. By the end of the process, I was appointed assistant program officer – local activism and sent to Kween district. As I later learnt from my job description, I was to be part of the team implementing the UKAID – Strengthening Uganda’s Response to Gender Equality (SURGE) with CEDOVIP focusing on prevention of violence against women and female genital mutilation in Kween district.
The SASA! Methodology and training exposed me to what women have to go through after female genital mutilation. I learnt that after being cut women can be exposed to infections including HIV/AIDS because the same knife is often used for many women, they could bleed to death, have difficulty in giving birth, develop keloids, painful sex, are traumatized and stigmatized, lose self-esteem, get fistula, etc. I recognized that there was nothing beneficial about FGM. Most of the myths advanced as reasons for carrying out FGM do not have any scientific backing. For example, community members say a woman who is not cut is either dirty, brings bad luck, is a girl or can bring famine to the home – all these have no scientific backing. They have been used by men to keep women under their control.
This learning was crucial in helping me execute my tasks in rallying the communities of Moyok and Binyiny sub-counties to reflect on the consequences of FGM and make a decision on whether the practice is worth continuing.
The beauty of the SASA! Methodology
As I came to learn, the most critical objective of our project was to inspire community members to analyze the implications of men’s power over women and how the community’s silence fuels violence against women and female genital mutilation and its connection to HIV/AIDS and to inspire community members to join in violence against women & Female Genital Mutilation prevention and response to create happier, safer and healthier relationships, homes and communities.
SASA! is unique in its focus on unpacking power, both its positive and negative uses, shifting away from the traditional focus on “gender” towards the heart of the problem. SASA! walks communities through a process of change: SASA! evolves step-by-step, avoiding the chronic cycle of awareness-raising. SASA! involves everyone! SASA! engages a critical mass of people across all levels of society in order to create social norm change.
SASA! is personal: It is more than just a program or a job. It is a part of us. SASA! helps staff and community members to reflect on their own lives and relationships before trying to influence others. SASA! works! SASA! is helping to create happier, healthier, safer relationships between men and women around the world.
The Kween Experience
Every community has its unique characteristics and thus require their own unique approach. On a personal level, I was able to understand the broad concept of violence; from all the different forms of violence and how balancing power in relationships leads to create safer and happier homes. As we engaged all stakeholders, it was great to see men and women reflect on how they have been using their power. The illumination and regret were visible. Community activists, opinion leaders, Local leaders, Police officers, healthcare workers, etc., spoke about their experiences of violence and female genital mutilation and experiences from their community. It was wonderful to see how activists took their commitments seriously – specially to live violence free lives, break the silence and hold perpetrators of violence and FGM accountable.
The SASA! Communities of Moyok and Binyiny now reject and speak out when they see violence and female genital cutting.
A case in point
During community activities, we came across a case that would make tears gush out of a rock; The husband had been incarcerated for close to 3 years. During his absence, the wife is alleged to have had an affair with a neighbor and said to have contracted HIV/AIDS in the process – something we could not independently verify. When her husband was released from jail, he was told about his wife’s alleged escapades. The man ran amok; he beat his wife to pulp – she was unconscious for almost three days and broke both legs. His wife has no surviving relatives. She was only helped by community members. The man was arrested with the help of police officers trained by CEDOVIP. SASA! Activists have continued to reach out to this woman. Personally, looking that woman in pain, unconscious and having two of her legs broken changed by attitude; it was an eye opener to the nature of violence and injustices women have to go through. There should be people who can rise up against such unfairness. CEDOVIP is already doing a lot as far as challenging injustices is concerned. In fact, I have made a life decision – even after CEDOVIP to continue fighting for the rights of women. Nobody deserves to be treated unfairly, let alone inhumanely.
After close to three years of implementing the program, the CEDOVIP team was superb. They live up to all SASA! Requirements. The team believes in continuous learning. They supported me to increase my knowledge on how the methodology works from START to ACTION. They pursue the concept of contextualization; that no two communities are the same and thus should be handled as such. Every engagement was contextualized to fit the Kween context. All materials were developed to suit this context. I enjoyed the mentoring support from senior staff – they were patient and always available to support me whenever I had a challenge.
Working for CEDOVIP has increased my skills in many areas including strengthening my interpersonal skills, team work, budgeting, accountability, reporting, programming, stakeholder management, etc. I will never be the same again.
I am grateful to Tina Musuya, CEDOVIP’s executive director, for being an excellent team leader. I have learnt a lot from her firm grasp of the issues that surround the rights of women and her passion to fight injustices. I am also thankful to my team leader Josephine Kamisya for her patience and forthrightness in working with me. She was always available to mentor me during the execution of the project. Her expertise in SASA! Programming is very inspiring. I thank Paul Bbuzibwa for being ever available to guide me on anything SASA!. In fact, Paul’s mentoring was very useful in executing the project in Kween. He gave me all the necessary tools needed for SASA! Programming.
In a special way, I want to thank my colleague Asha Chemutai for being a team player. For supporting me in every way to achieve our objectives. Words cannot explain my gratitude here.
In no particular order, I am very grateful for the mentorship and support from Grace Lwanga, Hawa Kagoya, George Emoit, Ann Nassamula, Carol Shemeri, Julius Lwanyaaga, Ssonko Sulaiman, Peter Wateya, Eleanor Watuulo, Hellen Angolere, Faustino Longole and Matthew Lule. Folks it has been an absolute privilege!!!