Biblical Oneness and the End of Female Genital Mutilation

CBE Melbourne, Australia
April 30, 2017
Rev. Patti Ricotta
[Corresponding PPT slide Nos are shown in square brackets]

[1] I want to thank you so much for the honor of being with you. I am especially grateful because my story is your story too. Did you know that?
Back in 2010, the Melbourne CBE chapter raised funds that sponsored 14 African clergy to participate in the first FGM conference my organization Life Together International held.
So, it is the privilege of my lifetime to be able to thank you in person for the ministry you were essential in creating. I can’t wait to tell you about what God did though our partnership.
You, my team and the Sabiny people of Eastern Uganda are a picture of how oneness in Christ makes us better together!
Our story began on a warm January morning in Kampala Uganda, way back in 2007. I had been teaching Biblical Equality to Christian church leaders in East Africa for 6 years. But on that day, God put a curve in the course of my life with one 10 minute conversation.
I had just finished teaching the first session of Biblical Equality at a conference for African clergy. The thrust of my teaching was that God’s original design for life between men and women is not hierarchy, but oneness and interdependence.
[2] As I stepped down from the platform an Anglican priest named Rev. Robert Erone pushed through the crowd that was heading out for the break. His Bible was open, and he kept tapping his finger on a passage. He said, “Patti, you come sit with me.” He had a big smile on his face and he was excited about something!
I had known Rev. Robert for several years, but hadn’t seen him in a while. He told me he had moved back to his home area, and was eager to tell me about his ministry among the Sabiny people, a tribe I had never heard of.

[3]  Let me tell you about the Sabiny, a people I love.
[4] The Sabiny are a tribe of about 230,000 people and live in the region of Sebei in Eastern Uganda.
[5] Sebei covers about 1,200 square miles of rippling slopes along the sides of Mt. Elgon.
[6, 7, 8] The lush land is laced with exquisite waterfalls cascading down the hillsides. You can’t travel very far in Sebei without finding another one.
[9, 10, 11] Hundreds of tiny villages and some small towns are tucked into the folds of the mountain.
[12] From above, this extinct volcano looks like a queen’s green taffeta skirt, draping over the boarders between Uganda and Kenya. Sebei is beautiful.
The Sabiny people are about 85% Christian, so their spiritual leaders are the most influential people in their community. Yet, they have practiced Female Genital Mutilation throughout the long history of their tribe, with the blessings of their clergy.
Now, before I go any further, I need to give you some background on Female Genital Mutilation, or FGM, from the standpoint of the Sabiny people. Every time I speak about FGM, there are many people who don’t know exactly what it is, so they cannot understand why I would try to convince people to give up their sacred cultural practices.
I’ll be as quick and gentle as I can, but it’s not a gentle subject. So the next minute and a half may require a little bravery on your part to listen and look. (Please feel free to close your ears and eyes if you think this may be triggering.)
Throughout the history of their tribe, Sabiny girls have gone through a public rite-of-passage from childhood to womanhood.  Until recently, very even numbered year, each of the villages in Sebei bring together their girls ages 14-18.
In December, after about five months of “mentoring in the ways of a true Sabiny woman,” the girls are ready to be “circumcised,” as they call it.
[13] They are taken to the village square, and laid down with nothing but the red clay earth beneath them. Pastors, parents, villagers and hopeful boys looking for a future bride peer down at the helpless girls.
A so-called “surgeon,” with no medical background, approaches each precious young lady, lifts her skirt, and cuts away her clitoris, labia majora and labia minora without anesthesia.  She no longer has the ability to enjoy sex without pain or experience the pleasure of sexual climax.  
[14] If the girl is brave, she’s more attractive as a bride. If she cries out or resists, she will be ridiculed the rest of her life. Only a brave “circumcised” girl is holy and clean—a true Sabiny woman, fit for marriage.
The girls are allowed 2 months to heal, and then are married off to the man of her father’s choosing, which is often the man who can pay the highest bride price.
(Okay that was the worst! Are we okay? Now you know far more about FGM than I did during that first conversation with Rev. Robert, back in 2007.)
Now, let’s go back to that conversation.
Although Rev. Robert is from a neighboring tribe and not a Sabiny, he had never questioned the Sabiny cultural belief that girls become acceptable adult women by having their genitals removed.
But through our biblical equality lesson that morning he discovered a problem with this reasoning.
[15] He said, “We have always believed 1st Corinthians 11:7 teaches only men are made in the image of God, and women are made in the image of man.”
Then, tapping his finger on our Genesis 1 passage, he said, “But now you have shown us even women are made in God’s image, and God gave authority to rule the earth to the man and woman—too! That means women really are equal to men in the eyes of God.”
I thought, “He got it! I can go home happy now!”
But then, Rev. Robert made an astonishing observation about the Sabiny practice of FGM.
He said, “You know, since women are made in the image of God, maybe that means God doesn't want us cutting our girls!”

I tried not to show how taken aback I was and calmly replied, “Yes I would agree with that. But, please tell me; why do you cut your girls?”

He looked surprised, as if I had asked a question with a self-evident answer. “Well,” he said, “if an unmarried girl is able to have sexual pleasure, she’ll likely become promiscuous and won’t be a virgin for her husband. Also, if a married woman enjoys sex, she might want sex with other men and will become unfaithful to her husband.”

“OK,” I said. “So being faithful in marriage is important. Is that right?”

“Yes, of course.” He said. “Being faithful is very important.”

“Then, Reverend, what do you cut off of men to keep them from being unfaithful to their wives?”

He looked down as if stunned by a question that had never occurred to him. After a few seconds, he quietly said, “I see your point.”

I pressed a little further, “Really though Reverend, since faithfulness in marriage is required by God from both the husband and wife, and since Jesus commands, ‘In EVERYTHING, do unto others what you would have them do unto you,’ wouldn’t the Sabiny feel the need to cut off some equally important part of a man’s body to force him to be faithful to his wife?”

The sweat began to bead up on his face. He kept looking down as if Jesus might write the answer in the dusty ground. Then he gave the only answer he could. The truth.
“You know,” he said meekly, “in our culture, the woman must be faithful; a man can do whatever he pleases.”

“But is that God's culture?” I softly asked.

“No,” he answered. Then perking up a bit he said, “You know, this is a new revelation for us. I think you had better come speak to the Sabiny clergy.”
That conversation refocused my calling and began an adventure into a cultural world unknown to me. In many ways it didn’t make good sense that God would call me—a white, American woman—to talk to black, African clergymen about ending a cultural practice they have treasured for hundreds if not thousands of years.
[16] At that point, all I knew about FGM could fit on a 3x5 card.    
I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah, good luck with that one, lady!” I know, right?
But, here’s the thing—when God is the driving force behind the change, and he picks you to be an agent of change, he knows exactly what he’s doing! It does-not-matter how difficult the issue, it-does-not-matter how many brilliant organizations have tried and not succeeded, and it does-not-matter how ill-equipped you think you are.
[17]When God calls you, he takes the raw material of all your life experiences and weaves them together in a way that makes you fit for the tasks Jesus prepared in advance for you to do!   [..pause..]
After the 2007 conference Rev. Robert told the Bishop of Sebei about his revelation that women are made in the image of God, equal to men. He suggested that the Bishop invite me to speak to the Sabiny clergy. Year after year the Bishop declined. Yet in my spirit, I knew God had not closed that door.
So I waited, and learned everything I could about FGM.
Three years later, the government of Uganda passed an anti-FGM law, which infuriated the Sabiny. Their defiance of the law resulted in more girls being mutilated in December of 2010 than in any other year. That upsetting result prompted the Bishop to try something new. He agreed to have me teach the Sabiny clergy.
After the invitation, I was ready to go. But, when God calls you to do something, there will be opposition. I faced criticism from some of the people closest to me; people I counted on for godly wisdom and guidance.
Some were fearful I might be harmed in a patriarchal society with little concern for women’s bodies.
Others questioned, “If big, prestigious NGO’s can’t convince people to give up FGM, what makes you think you can? Why should donors invest hard earned money on such a grandiose venture?”
They had good points. But, I believed God had given me a piece of the puzzle no one else was teaching the Sabiny. My undergraduate background is in psychology and biology.
I understood the spiritual, psychological and biological importance of the body part the Sabiny cut out.
Spiritually, Psalm 139 says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb…I am fearfully and wonderfully made…” God created every part of our bodies, with purpose.  
Biologically and psychologically, there is a very good and godly reason why God intends women to enjoy the pleasure of sex just as much as men. I know what that reason is, and I believed God wanted me to share it with the Sabiny.
So, what is the piece of the puzzle that the Sabiny were missing?
[18] Oxytocin! Do you know about the hormone oxytocin?  The Sabiny didn’t. But learning about it is helping them cast a new vision for their future; one without FGM.
[19] Oxytocin is the hormone that is involved in long term attachment between husband and wife. It’s nicknamed “The Love Hormone” or “The Bonding Hormone.”
Both male and female brains produce oxytocin in response to invited physical touch, sexual arousal and climax. Even holding hands, kissing and looking into each other’s eyes gets oxytocin flowing.
Once it starts to flow, oxytocin causes feelings of intimacy, closeness, and pleasure. [20] It creates a profound sense of well-being, warmth, trust and contentment between spouses.
When oxytocin is stimulated, it turns off the negative receptors in the brain. In other words, neither spouse can think negatively about the other. Oxytocin inhibits negative memories from forming, and it heightens access to pleasurable memories.
[21] I believe the function of oxytocin is what God is describing in Gen. 2:24 & 25: “A man will leave his mother and father, cling to his wife and the two become one flesh.” Oxytocin is a God-given bonding agent that reduces self-protectiveness and gives way to openness, making it natural for husband and wife to be naked and feel no shame.
Guess when oxytocin is released in its highest volume. During sexual climax!
But… women who have been cut cannot experience climax. In fact, because of scar tissue, cut women experience excruciating pain during intercourse. Instead of receiving a dose of the love hormone oxytocin, painful intercourse may cause the release of the “fight or flight” stress hormone, cortisol.
God intended the act of love-making to make love. But while the husband’s climax increases his ability to bond to his wife, a cut woman is robbed, not only of the pleasure, but of the increased emotional bonding to her husband, and the sense of well-being God intended sexual intimacy to provide in marriage.
Can you see why this would be vital information for the Sabiny?
[22,23] In January of 2011, I set out with a team on our first mission to Sebei. The extraordinary man in the red shirt is Delmark Mangusho, a Sabiny chief who has been the greatest gift of God to this ministry.
[24]He put his reputation on the line to serve God fighting FGM. Because of Delmark’s love for Jesus and his people, the Lord has multiplied his influence and increased the reach of our ministry together.  
We didn’t know what would happen as we stepped out in faith, but we did know this:
[25]God intended us to uproot the influence of patriarchy,
[26] not by shaming the Sabiny for violating women’s rights,
[27] not by coercing them with threats of the new anti-FGM law,
[28] and not by acting like cultural, educational and ethnic superiors. The Sabiny were weary from all those approaches.
[29] We brought sincere friendship, and the warm embrace of sisters and brothers captured in the love of Christ for one another.
We hoped to uproot the curse of patriarchy by cultivating the blessing of oneness in Christ.
[30] During that first 4-day conference in 2011, [31] there were 190 participants including pastors and their wives from the four districts of Sebei.
[32] We framed an understanding of FGM through a lens of biblical equality, scientific research on bonding, as I explained before, [33] and the medical problems of FGM, taught by a Ugandan Christian gynecologist.
[34] Everyone participated. [35]Everything was saturated in prayer, firmly connected to the Bible. Myths were replaced with truth and hearts were transformed.  
It was amazing! Near the end of the conference, the Bishop tapped me on the shoulder and asked to speak. In tears, he repented before his clergy. With halting speech, he asked forgiveness of the women for insisting they go through FGM in their youth.
The women jumped to their feet, spontaneously singing a song of forgiveness over the Bishop.
[36] No one had ever seen a Bishop repent to his “subordinates.” And a Bishop asking women for forgiveness was especially powerful.
The Bishop wasn’t diminished for humbling himself before women, and the women didn’t shame him for finally getting it right; they comforted him.
This atmosphere of oneness was far beyond what we could have ever hoped or imagined!
[37] The last night, there was a solemn candle-lighting ceremony. [38] All the pastors made written resolutions to go back to their home churches and preach the end of FGM!
I felt elated, and thought, Ah thank you Lord, my work here is done?
But as we were closing the conference and began saying good-bye, the Youth Pastor of the region sat next to me. He said, “This is certainly of God. But…if you do not come and share these things with the youth, I fear the impact ends here.”
Shocked, I said, “Won’t these pastors go back and teach their youth?”
He said, “Yes, of course. But the youth are a community unto themselves. If girls do not see boys decide to abandon FGM, they will continue to be cut. And boys must decide together to marry uncut girls, or face shunning from their age-mates.”
The Lord used this pastor to direct our next assignment. My work was far from done!
In 2012 we began including the youth in our work with pastors and we started training the child care directors of Compassion International who were working in the region. We learned that the youth didn’t know what FGM does to girls’ bodies. We realized that only the truth would set these youth free.
As mentioned, a Ugandan gynecologist taught about the Medical Dangers of FGM. He and his wife, a neonatal nurse, took turns each year presenting their work in a PowerPoint presentation.
[39] They taught the youth from the big screen in full color. 1,100 youth attended our 2015 conference. For the first time, they saw the horrible truth of what FGM does to a girl’s body. 
[40] At the end of her presentation, the nurse asked, “Boys, do you want your sisters to go through this?” “Nooo!” they shouted.
Then she asked, “Girls, do you want to go through this?” The girls, emboldened by the boys’ unanimous response, cried out, “Nooo!”
[41] The youth’s response mirrored their elders’—No More FGM!
By 2015, whole communities were making the decision to abandon the practice. It was as if the Holy Spirit was hovering over the Sabiny people, bringing brilliant light where there had been only destructive darkness.
And that night, 1,100 youth made commitments to make FGM end in their generation. I thought, This is it! God, we must surely be done now!
But that very night, a young girl named Lorna from a remote village, begged me to speak to her father and his second wife. Her voice quivered as she tried to explain her problem.
She said, “My second mother has convinced my father that I must be circumcised next year. She says I should already be married and the family eating well from my Bride Price, but instead, I’m still eating my father's food.”
You see, in many African countries, a marriage is a financial transaction between two men: one man is selling a daughter; the other man is buying a wife. And in Sebei, a young, cut girl brings the highest Bride Price.
Lorna explained that her father had married a second, younger wife and now there are many children. She took my hands and pleaded. “I know I’m already 17, but I don’t want to get married yet. I want to go to school.”
After learning what FGM is, she didn’t ever want to be circumcised! She believed her father would understand why if we would come to her village and explain it to him.
Girls like Lorna, living in remote villages, are perhaps the most vulnerable. Without the benefit of education, their parents rely heavily on culture for their understanding of life.
Because there is no such thing as old age social security, job pensions or retirement investments, these families believe a daughter's value is in providing a high Bride Price, which gives a little financial security in their old age.
Lorna’s story broke my heart. Lord, how do we respond?
Going back to my team, we prayed for the Holy Spirit to guide us. Delmark believed God was revealing to him that if a girl could earn her own money before marriage, she would be valuable for more than her Bride Price.
Once a father receives that payment, his daughter belongs to the groom’s family. He has no rights to his daughter or anything she produces after marriage.
Delmark reasoned that if a daughter produced an income before marriage, she would be welcome longer in her father’s house, and he would be less likely to have her cut and married at an early age. “And,” he said, “no girl with her own money will let someone push her around.”
 But how could we teach girls income-producing skills? Especially deep in the village. Where would we get the funding?
God showed us we were on the right path because, miraculously, the next month, we received a small grant from the Finnish government. With the funds, Delmark started a sister organization called Christian Sabiny Stop FGM (CSSF).
He and a team of Christian women mentors have established sixteen groups of girls in the most remote areas. Because the funds are small, we can only support fifteen girls per group, totaling 240 girls. We’re praying for resources to expand. So many girls want to join in.
[42] Although small, these funds provide girls with income-producing skills and Christian mentoring. [43] Some groups are learning to sew. [44] Two groups started last week training in hair styling.  
[45] In two areas, churches have given us small plots of land. We are building two kitchens to provide food services to church schools and catering services for church functions.  
God has done great things through little amounts of money. The new Bishop of Sebei, Paul Masaba, has received exciting reports of girls working and earning incomes, benefitting themselves and their families.
[46] Fannes, recently engaged to a young blind man, entered our sewing project. After learning to sew, she explained the power of earning her own income. She said, “When people say to me, ‘your fiancé is blind! How will he provide for you?’ I say to them, ‘It is I who will provide for him!’” Can you hear the godly strength in her voice?
The girls in our groups felt safe from FGM. All was going beautifully…until the Traditional Mentors and Surgeons became jealous.
The Traditional Mentors—who prepared girls for cutting—and the Surgeons—the untrained women who cut the girls— were furious. Ending FGM took away their income. They resented the Christian women leading our sixteen groups, for taking their revered title of Mentor. The Traditional women started “stalking” the girls; and many wavered in their decision not to be cut.  
Hearing this was infuriating! I went to my knees with what I thought was righteous indignation. “Lord, what can we do to stop these awful women? All they want is to make money and keep their social status! What are we going to do?” Anger blinded me to the un-Christ-like tone of my prayer.
God woke me up in the wee hours one morning to answer my so-called "righteous" prayer. I grabbed my notebook and wrote as fast as the ideas flowed.
I sensed the Lord saying, “Patti, what is to be gained by lifting some women up at the expense of tearing other women down? These Traditional women have been respected as “Mothers in Sebei” throughout their lives. They are not to be excluded from the process of moving the tribe forward.”
Then, I sensed the Lord say, “Patti, I’ve sent you to be an advocate for all women. I don’t want any woman to lose her livelihood, her self-respect or her sense of social value. Why do you?”
[47] The message stunned me. But it made sense. Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you…In everything, do unto others what you would have them do unto you. (Luk 6:27-28; Mt. 7:12)
I knew God was leading us to create a conference in which the Christian women would embrace the Traditional women in the love of Christ.
It all goes back to oneness.
[48] After much prayer, we gathered our Christian Mentors and Traditional Mentors and surgeons together. [49] The Christian women, who had always believed they needed to keep separate from the traditional women, embraced them in the love of Christ.
[50] All the women, Traditional and Christian, learned what their body parts were created to do. The Traditional women, who had cut girls throughout their lifetimes were brought to tears as they discovered why they had such great pain and despised sex with their husbands. When they realized how different their lives, and the lives of countless other girls could have been if they had remained intact, they vowed never to cut another girl!
[51] Many Traditional women gave their lives to Christ.
[52] Women I once thought of as enemies, I now embrace as sisters. Again, the power of oneness united women in ways no one could have imagined.
I thought, Wow! What could be left to do?
Well, the Traditional women challenged us. “What about the men deep in the villages? You say you’ve convinced the male clergy. What about the men who don't go to church? They will insist on cutting their girls this year unless you go to them before December.”
Remember I said girls are traditionally cut in December on even-numbered years, and this was January of 2016.
Again, as soon as we had one victory, God revealed to us the next area to address. We decided to hold a men’s conference in a rural village accessible to the men most likely to cut their daughters that year.
[53] During the 2-day conference, God gave me favor with these men. [54] We developed warm and trusting relationships. I was able to speak openly about God’s ideals in sexual matters and bonding.
[55] In addition to teaching them about how FGM harms women and marriages, I talked about their wives who are already cut.
I explained how they can use gentle, invited touch, eye contact and loving words to help their wives bond with them. This was all new! They were on the edge of their seats, smiling with the joy of discovery.
[56] I knew I had a willing audience, so I gave them homework!
I said, “On the way home, think about three things you love about your wife so much that you would marry her all over again. Then, go home and tell her those three things!”
[57] The next day, they had wonderful stories. One man said his wife was angry at him for going to the conference the first day and leaving her to harvest the maize by herself. But when he told her those three things, she insisted that he go back to that Christian meeting!
Another man said when he told his wife the three things, she began to cry and put her arms around him. It startled him because this was not her usual behavior.
I asked if she said anything to him. He said, “Yes, she asked me why in 35 years of marriage I never said those words and she never knew that’s how I felt. I told her I don’t know why, but I’m saying them now.” The place erupted in joy and clapping!
[58] God powerfully answered our prayer to change the hearts of these men. They understood how FGM harms their girls, their women and their marriages!
They made unanimous written commitments to: “…stop FGM in Sebei, beginning from 2016,” and added, “Now that we learned from the Bible that no girl is to be cut, we will no longer take our girls to be cut.”
LTI has been ministering among the Sabiny people for six years. We can’t verify that no cutting has taken place in secret. But, 2016 was the first year in the history of the tribe that there was no report of any girls being cut.
Praise and glory to you Jesus!
When men and women experience the Gospel’s power of oneness deeply uniting them in mutual, self-giving love, the allure of patriarchy loses its grip. Instead, men and women become captivated by Christ and each other! With oneness, even ancient patriarchal practices are abandoned to the embrace of Love!
Would you like to see change in an area of injustice or inequality that doesn’t seem to budge? Maybe you aren’t looking to become a change-maker, but God seems to have deposited some issue in your lap—something that keeps you up at night; something that intrudes into your thinking even when you’re trying not to think about it.
I believe those sleepless nights and intrusive thoughts are God’s way of saying there is something he’s wired in you that’s missing from all the other solutions that have been tried, and he wants you to figure out what that thing is and bring it to the table.
It doesn’t mean you’re more brilliant than those other wonderful people who are trying hard to deal with the issue. It’s just that they aren’t you, so they can’t bring the piece of the puzzle that only you have. I’ll paraphrase Mordecai’s words to Esther, the way God did to me: “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the [Sabiny or your people] you will arise from another place, but [you will miss the blessing]. And who knows but that you [were born] for such a time as this?" (Est 4:14 NIV)
[59] Thank you.