At our March 2010 Steering Committee meeting held in Indianapolis, IN, we had the opportunity to meet with Sr. Stella Sabina, Director of GWP’s partner project Shifting Ideas Through Education for African Women (SITEAW), Inc., to learn firsthand of her work on behalf of the women of Uganda.
Sr. Stella, a Catholic nun who grew up in Uganda, began her presentation by sharing that the goal of SITEAW, Inc. is to help shift some of the long held beliefs and traditions in her country which are oppressive to women. Examples she provided of this are beliefs that women should be voiceless, that women should not be protected from sexual and domestic abuse, that circumcision (or genital mutilation) of girls should be an accepted ritual of maturity, that men have the right to inherit women, and that men may kill women without legal consequence. She noted that such beliefs impact women socially, physically, intellectually and emotionally. While many who practice these traditions regard them as unchangeable, Sr. Stella says that “…with education…we can change them.”Sr. Stella told of visiting remote regions of Uganda and speaking with girls about the practice of female circumcision. She noted that female circumcision was a tradition associated with the preparation of young girls (typically ages 9-11) for marriage. Though some girls bleed to death or die due to the unsanitary practices associated with the cutting ritual, women in the community participate in it because they fear their daughters will be unable to marry unless they do so. Though some heal from the circumcision, Sr. Stella says that their scars make childbirth more dangerous for both the mother and her baby. Some girls try to run away prior to their circumcision, however, Sr. Stella says that they are often captured and returned to their tribe. If not circumcised, she says the girls are barred from food and water, and, if not circumcised by age 15, must leave their community forever. While female circumcision is against the law in Egypt and Somalia, Sr. Stella says that three tribes in Uganda still practice this tradition.
Sr. Stella reports that many young women in Uganda do not know that it is possible to forego circumcision and that “education is the key to opening and liberating the mind.” SITEAW, Inc. teaches girls the value of learning, critical thinking, exploring, discovering, eliminating fear and replacing it with courage, and finding their place (even if they do not fit into a role they were supposed to assume). Sr. Stella says that these young women then become advocates to “save” other girls by returning to their communities and educating other women and girls. She notes that new, more positive traditions could be developed to celebrate the rite of passage from girlhood to womanhood to replace the former brutal and dangerous traditions.
Sr. Stella reports that SITEAW, Inc. collaborates with a priest who operates a school for children in Kampala and that there are currently 22 girls enrolled. Upon turning 15 or 16 years of age, these young women then learn how to weave, make baskets and use the computer. Upon the sale of their crafts, these women are then asked to contribute something back to the program in order to help other women. She says, “If you are helped, you learn how to help others.” Sr. Stella says that GWP donations help to pay for the schooling of the girls as well as provide funds for the women’s projects.
Due to warring in Eastern Uganda, which includes the recruiting of children to terrorize villages, Sr. Stella says she is hoping to move her program to another part of the country. She notes that she has dreams to build a new center for women in Uganda which will serve girls who have run away from their families, elderly women, and battered or circumcised women.
Sr. Stella currently lives in the United States and has dedicated her life to helping the women of Uganda. Her Catholic Order of Sisters in Uganda receives SITEAW, Inc. donations and ensures that its educational and skills training programs are carried out. To read more about Sr. Stella’s life and work in Uganda, you can read her book entitled “Out of a Dark and Narrow Tunnel: A Struggle to Be.” To learn more about SITEAW, Inc., you can go to http://www.omukazi.org. Sr. Stella plans to return to Uganda in 2011 and welcomes others to travel with her.
Global Women’s Project is pleased to be able to continue to work with Sr. Stella, who passionately seeks to develop programs which will serve the women of rural Uganda.