Until November 2014, Patricia and Anthony Alinyo and their two children were an ordinary family living in eastern Uganda, in the district of Kapchorwa, in a small grass-thatched house built on a two-acre piece of land.
Then the couple was arrested after Patricia, who was pregnant with twins at the time, and a group of six other women from the village got circumcised.
The women had had enough of taunts and humiliation from their husbands for not being circumcised.
Days after the “cut,” the Alinyos and five other people from Kirwoko parish in Kapchorwa district were arrested, tried and sentenced to four years in jail for participating in and abetting female genital mutilation.
The Alinyos were released last December, following a pardon from President Yoweri Museveni. By the time of their release, their house had collapsed and their crops had rotted. They also lost their twin babies at birth, reportedly because Patricia was being overworked in prison.
“The saddest part was when the foetuses were brought over by the police and buried without their parents being present,” said Viola Cherop, a Mothers Union community development co-ordinator from Kirwoko.
The community has now become suspicious of anyone from outside of their community attempting to fight FGM. When we visited the home of 93-year-old FGM “surgeon” Mwajuma Kokop, in a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) vehicle, the community gathered in large numbers to observe the proceedings.
Community workers say that since the arrests, community members regularly come together to defend residents who could be arrested for practising FGM.
But Chris Baryomunsi, Uganda’s Minister of State for Health and sponsor of the law that outlawed FGM in Uganda, said that what he did was the right thing and cases like those of the Alinyos are isolated incidents.
According to him, the law, which was passed in 2010, has resulted in a reduction of FGM cases in the Sebei sub-region.
Sebei is home to the Sabiny, Kadam and Tepeth among whom FGM prevalence stands at 50 per cent. Among the Pokot in Karamojong, prevalence is at 95 per cent.
According to UNFPA, FGM prevalence in Uganda has stagnated at about 1.4 per cent of the population since 2005.
FGM is a harmful practice that causes infertility, death during child birth, and reproductive health problems like fistula.
But Uganda is not the only country struggling to end the practice. The United Nations estimates that 140 million girls and women have undergone FGM worldwide. Most of these women live in the Middle East and Africa.
The UN further reports that progress in this fight has been very slow, with FGM declining by just five per cent globally between 2005 and 2010.
Using this rate, of a one percentage reduction in the number of girls being cut annually, the UN predicts that the sustainable development target of eliminating FGM will be only be met in 2074.
Nevertheless, world leaders recently adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that set 2030 as the deadline for elimination of FGM.
There has been an international push to have FGM outlawed and African countries appear to have heeded this call. UN data shows that 24 countries in Africa have outlawed FGM.
But a UN report from 2009 shows that the majority of these countries are not implementing the laws.
Ghana is the only country said to have fully implemented the laws. Countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Egypt, Gambia, Kenya, Senegal and Somalia have reported a decline in FGM and appear to be focusing on community-based approaches.
Senegal is one of the more successful countries in this fight and has focused on a community-led approach that includes using celebrities to spread the message.
Senegalese-born urban soul and hip hop star Sister Fa, who is a victim of FGM, is one of the celebrities actively campaigning against the practice. Somalia is following this approach too.
Ethiopia, where the prevalence rate has fallen by some 74 per cent, also seems to be using a combination of community-led approaches and the law. According to the UN, the Ethiopian women lawyers association mobilises communities on application of the law, while potential victims report to get legal protection.
In Uganda, the approach of providing legal protection seems not to be working. Instead, the community, including the women forced into the practice, prefer to protect their husbands and in-laws.
According to community workers in Kapchorwa, adult women are increasingly being forced into getting circumcised because of the humiliation they endure at the hands of their husbands and in-laws.
These community workers also add that despite Uganda enacting a law against FGM in 2010, there has not been any major progress reported even when arrests have been made.
People working with communities that circumcise say enforcement of the law is driving the practice underground, hence affecting implementation of other programmes and targets including the eradication of poverty, HIV/Aids and malnutrition.
Tina Cheptoyek, community development officer for the Church of Uganda’s Sebei Diocese, said implementation of the law generally pushed the practice underground, removing the need for elaborate ceremonies that used to be the norm before circumcising girls. This has reduced access to mentors and surgeons.
“That’s more dangerous because young girls are circumcising each other and sharing blades, which increases the HIV/Aids risk,” she said.
Jackson Chekweko, the executive director of Reproductive Health Uganda, said although the law is important for future implementation, the government should increase access to education, sensitisation, health facilities and social services to these communities.
“Right now, the law is punishing and worsening the situation of the poor, ignorant, vulnerable and uneducated. They need to be helped to stop the practice,” he said.
Prossy Njoka, the head of communications at UNFPA, agrees with this approach saying that the law should serve as a support infrastructure rather than a punitive instrument.
UNFPA is also looking to adopt a strategy similar to the one used in Senegal by partnering with long-distance runners from the Sebei region such as Moses Kipsiro, Solomon Mutai and Steven Kiprotich to campaign against the practice.