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Partnering with the "Guardians of Our Culture"

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Partnering with the "Guardians of Our Culture"

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Today we visited the headquarters of the Ugandan NGO called Reproductive Education and Community Health (REACH). UNFPA funded REACH's efforts in it's early stages to support efforts promote the end of female genital cutting (FGC)and empower girls through education. The mission of REACH, which was established in 1996, clearly states that it exists to stop genital cutting, by using a culturally sensitive approach. I was so inspired by the story of REACH and an excited to tell everyone about the achievements of REACH and Ms. Beatrice.

In 1996, before the "cutting season" was slated to begin, REACH began campaigning to the community to abandon the practice of FGC. Amazingly, there was a 66% drop in the number of girls that were circumcised. After hearing about the success of the program, international media like the BBC flocked to Kapchorwa to profile the group that was behind such incredible statistics. At the time the roads to the villages in Western Uganda were impassible and but following the success story that drew many foreigners to this region, the government invested in tarmac roads and now, the roads are amongst the best outside of the capital city.

At one point, the current president came to visit the program. When the president of Uganda comes to the rural areas, there is often an expectation that food and transportation costs will be provided for locals who witness his visit. Unfortunately, there weren't enough resources to properly accommodate the many villagers who came to the REACH program site during that time. As a resulted many of the villagers felt disgruntled and banded together as a feeling of resentment emerged with the community. Justifiably, they felt used and the anger was directed to REACH and the Western journalists who in their opinion were "making a business on us but they did not feed us or transport us."

This bitterness fuelled community members to target REACH, declaring that this program was taking away their traditional practices. The impact on young women was widespread. Teenage girls were offered incentives to revert back to the practice...cash and goats were distributed to girls who were circumcised. By the cutting season of 1998, nearly 1100 girls were circumcised This was a huge setback and sent the developers of REACH back to the drawing boards.

The backlash against the anti-FGC/M initiatives of REACH was caused not only by economic tensions but also a lack of emphasizing how REACH would be culturally sensitive. Eventually REACH integrated cultural sensitivity as a means to accomplishing their ultimate goal and in 2006, the Kapchowra village reported zero circumcisions.

One way REACH has achieved success today is the integration of the Sabiny elders in condemning the practice and telling young girls it is no longer important to be circumcised to prove strength. For a society which prioritizes cultural ceremonies like FGC as an important link in preserving tribal identity, it is extremely powerful to have the blessings of the elders who are referred to as the "guardians of the culture." They have created alternative rites of passage incorporating other ceremonies to replace the massive festival-like atmosphere of the cutting seasons.

Hearing Ms. Beatrice explain this part of REACH's history illustrated to me why culturally sensitive models are crucial in ending FGC/M. For me, it's important to remember that amongst the Sabiny tribe female cutting is a test of physical strength. Alternative rites of passage can help women still pass "this test."

Female genital circumcision/cutting/mutilation is practice endemic in my Somali culture. Over the years, I have come to use the word "cutting" to refer to the practice since I find it both sensitive and accurate. Recently, as more people become more aware about the practice, they unfortunately refer to these women as being "mutilated" and this is problematic. Having grown up with many women who were circumcised, I believe it is imperative for Americans to understand that using words like "mutilation" alienates women who have been circumcised.

Early circumcision can be as traumatic as child rape. Besides the medical complications, there is a severe lost of trust and security when children are sent to be circumcised by their own parents. I make this comparison to plead that when we talk about this subject, its careful to be as sensitive as possible and realize that heavy handed approaches (even if they are well intentioned) will always do more harm. After centuries of colonization fresh in memory, many African societies which continue to practice genital cutting will continue to point to patronizing interventions as examples of Western arrogance and this will be enough stimulus for its continuation.

UNFPA once heavily funded this organization, but today REACH is an independent NGO making it an example of a sustainable program. UNFPA's initial belief in the REACH program grew to become a strong partnership and leaves a powerful example of success.

What I appreciate in REACH's mission statement is that they are taking a popular counter-argument away from those who promote FGC. In my opinion, REACH is the best strategy for ending FGC because its greatest asset is its grassroots foundation. Right before we left Ms. Beatrice she explained that there is inadequate funding to fully carry out the anti FGM-campaign with the community. I can't help but feel disappointed at the United States is not supporting UNFPA's work to help implement programs like those of REACH in other areas of Uganda or around the world.

The United States has defunded UNFPA for the past 7 years, depriving financial support for groups like REACH and giving women of the world the impression that Americans don't believe in the mission of REACH and the rights of young girls and women. As you may know, the U.S. is the only country in the world to withhold funds from UNFPA- the largest international source of assistance for women- for reasons that are political, not financial.

It makes me thankful for organizations like Americans for UNFPA, that are helping to show the world that Americans do believe in women's health and rights globally. There are lots of ways to get involved with Americans for UNFPA work, check them out at www.americansforunfpa.org/takeaction.

Americans for UNFPA is involved in the Amex Project and this is the last week for them to get votes for their End Fistula- Global Woman's Health Project. I've had the fortune of visiting fistula hospitals funded by UNFPA in Eritrea and I can say that their support is invaluable. If you can take a minute to vote for the project please do so at: End Fistula- Global Woman's Health Project.

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