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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Museveni, traditionalists differ on female circumcision

July 15, 2009 Uganda - While the Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, criticized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as ‘interference’ with God’s works and then banned the age-old practice in his country, some traditionalists here are set to resist the government’s action. In view of the absence of a law to effect the ban, furious activists described it as mere lip service which would not stop traditionalists from continuing with the practice. Last week, Museveni told a gathering in the Nakapiripiriti district – home to pastoralist ethnic groups: Sabinys, Pokots and Karamojong, found in the landlocked east African country’s remote northeastern region, that a law was in the offing to ban the stigmatizing practice. "Now, you people interfere with God's work. Some say it is culture. Yes, I support culture but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information," Museveni said, after some elders told him that the practice was part of their culture. "The way God made it (female body), there is no part of a human body that is useless," Museveni told the predominantly peasant gathering, currently faced with hunger due to failed crops and most of the fields scorched due to prolonged dry spells, a harsh experience attributed to climate change. The ban coincided with the season for administering the practice targeting teenage girls (14 – 18years) and some traditionalists have vowed to carry on as their culture demands despite the support of the government ban by some of their own, mainly the literates. "We are aware of some people preparing to initiate some girls in the brutal initiation mid this month but the community decided that it was not useful, since women were not getting anything out of it, so the district council decided to establish an ordinance banning it," said Nelson Chelimo, chairman of Kapchorwa district. “The campaign to end the practice has been alive in his community for several years and that in the recent past, educated young women in Kapchorwa have shunned it, but their numbers are fewer compared to largely illiterate population caught in the brutal tradition. The district council's ordinance will now be submitted to parliament so that it can become law and subject to enforcement by the national police force. It is widely believed among the many tribes that a woman who married without first being circumcised would be stricken for life with various illnesses, but that those who have transformed from traditional to modern lifestyle have found those beliefs are really false. Last year, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution that called Female Genital Mutilation a violation of the rights of women, saying it constituted "irreparable, irreversible abuse", adding that the practice increases the risk of HIV transmission, as well as maternal and infant mortality. UN estimates that between 100 million to 140 million women worldwide have undergone the horrifying practice, which has attracted 1 million euro from European Union to empower African women to make inroads toward achieving the Millennium Development Goal number three. The 1 million (about US$ 1.26 million) Netherlands government funded initiative will mainly draw lessons from conflict and post-conflict hotspots in Africa, where women bear the brunt of gender-based violence (GBV), which includes sexual assault, rape and female genital mutilation. These lessons are meant to empower the continent’s women to confront the horrors of GBV and demand justice across Africa, Netherland Ambassador to Uganda Jeroen Verheul said while launching the project recently in Kampala. Pan African women network, Akina Mama wa Africa (AMWA) and the Netherlands government have picked two case studies - Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo - where women’s bodies have served “as temples of war” in past and present conflict. “Our bodies are used as temples of war, active or otherwise. We need to see prevention of gender-based violence prioritised through constitutional reforms and enabling laws. This is the one message that, for the next three years, should ring from Cape to Cairo,” said Ms. Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, AMWA Executive Director. The project will apply the lessons learned from the two countries to other conflict and post conflict areas, including Northern Uganda, where women have suffered acts of violence during the brutal 22-year rebellion at the hands of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army, while some reports have also indicated that the government army also did orchestrate some of these acts. As the way forward, activists should demand legal reforms to earn justice for the victims. By UN benchmarks, Uganda is on course to achieve MDG No.3 for promotion of gender equality and women empowerment, but a lot more ground has to be covered to stop GBV. The Female Genital Mutilation Bill, for instance is currently before Parliament but Ugandan women have been working to push through other more daunting legislation that relates to gender - the Domestic Relations Bill, Domestic Violence Bill and the Sexual Offences Bill - all still stuck at cabinet level. This though is not an isolated Ugandan case but one that cuts across the continent and women activists want these fast tracked, passed and given real implementation according to AMWA Regional Director Christine Butegwa. “Let’s get away from lip-service,” Butegwa charged, stressing “the policies that are in place to address GBV should be implemented by 2011 and this is where governments must act.” She noted that “Uganda in the 1990s was a best practice case in terms of gender progress and policy formulation, but has somewhat stagnated on the legislation front,” adding “because of this, experiences of Congo and especially Sierra Leone are a good rejoinder that should jolt Kampala out of stagnation.” Like Uganda, the Sierra Leone story is disturbing. On the one hand, the country is conflict ridden but its culture also serves up another vice on the GBV menu - female genital mutilation - which happens in some of Uganda’s communities. Confessions of Sierra Leonean teenagers who have fled their homes due to the cut, to seek refuge at the Rainbo Centre in the capital tell of the pain, betrayal and risks that the practice has exposed them to: painful sexual intercourse, urinary tract infections, tetanus infections and a greater risk of being exposed to HIV/AIDS. Kampala - 14/07/2009