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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Female Genital Mutilation

August 5, 2009

While Ugandan leader, Yoweri Museveni, criticized Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and slapped a ban on the age old practice in many African tribes, some traditionalists are set to resist the decree. The ban in Uganda coincides with the season for administering the practice targeting teenage girls (14 - 18years).

“I support culture, but you must support culture that is useful and based on scientific information. There is no part of a human body that is useless," Museveni told a gathering in the Nakapiripiriti district home to pastoralist ethnic groups: Sabinys, Pokots and Karamojong, after some elders told him that the practice is part of their culture.

"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 scorched fields due to prolonged dry spells, a harsh experience attributed to climate change.

“Some people are preparing to initiate girls in the brutal initiation mid this month, but the community has decided that it is not useful, since women are not getting anything out of it. The district council has decided to establish an ordinance banning it," says Nelson Chelimo, chairman of Kapchorwa district.

His community has been sensitized against the practice for several years. Educated young women in Kapchorwa have shunned it, but their numbers are fewer compared to the 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. However, those who have transformed from traditional to modern lifestyle have found those beliefs to be false.

Last year, the United Nations (UN) passed a resolution that called Female Genital Mutilation a violation of the rights of women and saying that it constituted "irreparable, irreversible abuse" that increases the risk of HIV transmission, as well as maternal and infant mortality.

According to UN estimates, between 100 million to 140 million women worldwide have undergone the horrifying practice, which has attracted Euro 1million fund from the European Union to empower women on the African continent make inroads toward achieving Millennium Development Goal number three. The 1 million (about $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’s ambassador to Uganda, Jeroen Verheul says.

Temples of War, Pan African women network Akina Mama wa Africa (AMWA) and the Netherlands government have picked two case studies from Sierra Leone and DR Congo where women’ s bodies have served as temples of war in past and present conflict.

“We need to see prevention of gender based violence prioritized through constitutional reforms and enabling laws,” says Ms. Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe, AMWA’s 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 and government army. As the way forward, activists should demand legal reforms to earn justice for the victims.

By United Nations 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. Other daunting legislations that relate to gender such as the Domestic Relations Bill, Domestic Violence Bill and the Sexual Offences Bill are still stuck at cabinet level.

“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. Because of this, experiences of Congo and especially Sierra Leone are a good rejoinder that should jolt Kampala out of stagnation,” says Christine Butegwa, Director, AMWA.

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.

On top of this suffering comes raging men during the war, who rape teenagers, women and even children. The Rape and Crisis Centre in Freetown, according to Sierra Leonean activist Amie Kandeh herself a victim of female genital mutilation records testimonies of women who have turned up to tell horrifying stories, when soldiers and rebels alike forced sons to gang rape their own mothers while their siblings looked on.

“This is not drama, but reality. And you talk of compensation, how much can you compensate? At the Rape and Crisis Centre, the youngest rape victim is two months old,” says Ms. Kandeh.

In several African countries, women’s sexuality and sexual reproductive rights are controlled by men under the cause of culture, norms, morality and even religion. But in scenarios where armed conflict has intervened in countries like Burundi, Ivory Coast, Congo, Somalia, Sudan’s Darfur, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Uganda, the plight of women has worsened, with crude violations of women’s sexual reproductive rights running high, leading to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, prolonged tears, urinary fistula, faecal fistula and chronic sexually transmitted diseases.

Often, victims of such acts are rejected and stigmatized by their own families and made to suffer post traumatic stress disorders, depression and suicidal attempts. Few post conflict peace building initiatives in many countries address the women’s sexual reproductive health rights.

By Judith Auma
Judith Auma writes for The African Executive