It has been a common practice that Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) in most cases have the backing of community members from where they operate.
This however, is not the case in Sebei sub region in eastern Uganda where there have been reported cases of harassment and discrimination of HRDs especially due to lack of solidarity from the people who still treasure the outlawed cultural act of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
In Uganda, FGM became a crime when the Anti FGM Act was put in place in 2010, attracting a maximum sentence of 10 years for committing the act and seven years for abating it. However reports still indicate the practice still persists especially in the districts of Bukwo.
As a result, HRDs that advocate for the end of FGM face a wave of discrimination and ridicule from proponents of the practice.
During a recent fact finding mission conducted by the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders in Uganda’s (NCHRDU) and one of our founding organizations; Human Rights Center Uganda interacted with individual HRDs and organizations.
The mission was aimed at understanding the work of HRDs in Sebei, emerging threats for HRDs and how they work with key players in the HRD networks to complement each other. It was also an opportunity to identify protection needs of the Sebei HRDs for possible future interventions by NCHRDU.
HRDs in Sebei told the visiting team that FGM is still widely practiced especially in the district of Bukwo, one of the three districts in Sebei sub region.
The HRDs however, said there has been a remarkable reduction of FGM cases reported in the two other districts of Kapchorwa and Kween even though there are isolated cases reported in some areas.
Beatrice Chelangat, one of the HRDs who has been working to end FGM since 1996 says that faith based organizations, elders and local leaders have been supportive of HRD’s work to stop FGM. She however observes that communities have been reluctant to completely shun the practice.
“We still commit ourselves to save at least a girl or a woman from FGM, it is our responsibility as HRDs to ensure that girls and women are protected,” says Chelangat.
Chelangat adds that NCHRDU should continue working HRDs at the grassroots level, arguing that most HRDs working in rural areas face real life threats especially in Sebei where culture is an obstacle to their work.
“Work in the field is not easy and we want to work with players at the national level like NCHRDU so that the desired change (stop FGM) is achieved at the national level at the end of the day,” says Chelangat.
Chelangat says that promoters of FGM have composed songs ridiculing HRDs like herself. She says that others plan ambushes with intention to harm HRDs sensitizing communities about the dangers of FGM.
Chelangat however says she will not keep quiet until she sees no FGM. “What we want is emergency protection once we go through these hiccups. Stakeholders at the national level need to be closer to us so that we are strengthened to continue with the campaign (against FGM),” says Chelangat.
The NCHRDU team interacted with various HRD organizations including FIDA, Action aid, Community Action for Human Rights, Uganda Human Rights Commission, Kapchorwa Civil Society organizations’ Alliance and REACH Program, an organisation that campaigns against FGM.
The NCHRDU learned that most HRD organizations operate in Kapchorwa with few community based organizations operating in Bukwo and Kween districts.