Throughout this trip, I have sensed the surprise of the locals when they see me traveling with a white, American delegation. I am of African descent and I wear a headscarf and in many ways seem odd in this group. But I can connect to many Ugandan people on 2 levels - being African and Muslim. Some of the locals even speak to me in the local language and I have been welcomed with countless "salaams," a traditional Muslim greeting. Today provided me a rare opportunity to reflect on my presence in the delegation and what message I was communicating to Ugandan girls in particular.
REACH is a Ugandan NGO that works to stop harmful traditional practices like female genital cutting (FGM/C). Because FGC in Uganda is a right of passage, REACH has created alternative initiation rituals. This group primarily works in Kapchowra, Western Uganda where the Sabiny are amongst the few Ugandan tribes who continue to practice FGC. Ms. Beatrice serves as the director general and is among the few female activists who don't shy away from honest discussion of reproductive health. This is ironic, because here in Uganda women can have the public space to discuss their sexual and reproductive rights openly. But in the United States reproductive health has become too polarized. I feel as if Americans don't really engage with women's health and human rights issues and neglect to understand the magnitude of problems that can arise from childbirth (ranging from fistula to maternal mortality) .
After we arrived at the Nanyata primary school in Kapchowra, a REACH program site that incorporates the anti-FGC mission into its curriculum, I was delighted to learn that the majority of the children were Muslim because I felt that our bond was greater than nationality. We sat outside under a giant tree with rain clouds low in the distances and were treated to schoolchildren performing skits and singing. Throughout the performances, I could feel the curious stares of the children and wondered what they were thinking. Right then Ms. Beatrice caught me off guard by asking me to share words of encouragement with the children, especially important since I was a Muslim woman and not the typical foreign visitor.
Initially I was completely flustered but as I looked into the crowd of young faces, I could only stress education as the single biggest tool for creating a future. It's not a coincidence that I am a university student and find myself in Africa. Being in college has expanded my understanding of history, leaving me hungry to learn more. But today I felt that I was also a role model. I don't like talking about myself in such lofty ways, but I pictured how seeing another black, Muslim woman was a powerful message to the children. I tried to stress that the biggest difference between FGC in Somalia and Uganda centers around choice. In Somalia, young girls have no choice about what is being done to their bodies but here in Uganda teenagers can choose. Amongst the Sabiny, female teens between the ages of 15-19 chose to be circumcised because it has been an integral part of their culture. The cutting ceremony is a test of strength since the courageous girls do not cry. Over lunch Ms. Beatrice stated cutting is "not relevant today" and I couldn't agree more. If FGC is a test of strength in this community, I couldn't help but wish that females achieving a high school diploma could one day be regarded strong women. The way I see it, with more education in schools, young women will be able to make more informed decisions about their bodies.
The importance of positive role models cannot be understated, especially when the public roles of women are limited. As a young child, I had strong women role models to look up to including my Somali grandmother, a single mother of ten children. Many girls today voiced their ambitions to be doctors, nurses, headmistress or engineers and I was delighted to hear this, especially after the other female delegates explained they, too, were nurses and engineers.
We also visited a secondary boarding school and met Agnes, a charismatic, confident, and outspoken student leader of the REACH program in her high school. Agnes completely blew me away and was such an inspiring product of youth empowerment clubs. Often when visiting schools or clinics, women can be shy and reticent but Agnes was an excellent public speaker. As one of the delegates stated, women should not only have the right to speak, but need to speak up in order for their societies to fully understand their lives. This remarkable young woman reminded me strongly of Ms. Beatrice. Both have the immense courage to speak loudly and clearly about genital cutting, simply stating that they are beautiful, just the way God made them. It is time we all listen.