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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Female Circumcision: Challenges Remain Despite New Law

January 13, 2010 By Richard M. Kavuma - The Observer As a 27-year-old primary school teacher, Doreen is among the most educated people in her village in Binyinyi Sub-county, Kapchorwa District, and it is not surprising that she is not “yet” circumcised.

For generations, the Sabiny have been circumcising both boys and girls as a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. For females, the circumcision, also practised by the Pokot, Tepeth and Karimojong, involves cutting part of, or the whole of their clitoris. Traditionally, one of the reasons for circumcising women is that it suppresses the sexual appetite of women and therefore makes them less likely to commit adultery.

But over the last 50 years, more and more girls – especially the educated – have escaped this female genital mutilation (FGM), which dehumanises women and may lead to complications during child birth. In December, Parliament passed the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation Bill, moved by Kinkizi East MP, Chris Baryomunsi, which provides for prison sentences for anyone carrying out or aiding FGM. Yet, despite her education and the new law, Doreen says she just may decide to undergo the circumcision ritual, which explains why she says she has not “yet” been circumcised. “I am very happy that the law has been passed but I don’t know how effective it will be here because these cultural things are very strong,” says Doreen, who has been married for four years and already has two children. “I have not undergone circumcision but for many reasons, I am likely to go for it. I am facing so many disturbances because I am not circumcised.” Around the time MPs were passing the anti-FGM bill in Kampala, Doreen and an uncircumcised neighbour walked down to the village stream to draw water. As they waited in the queue, a group of women, some of whom were only circumcised in December 2008, arrived and reminded them that much as they are mothers, they are still considered children. “These women just pushed our jerry cans away, saying there was no way girls like us could get water before them,” Doreen recalls, narrating the stigma and social discrimination that uncircumcised married women often face. They, for instance, may be barred from speaking at community meetings and they are not allowed to get grain from the granary or cow dung from the kraal. Another hurdle for women like Doreen comes at the time of circumcising boys. A mother who is not circumcised is not allowed to attend the circumcision of her sons. And her husband’s great friends with whom he was circumcised – the Pasiben – may boycott the party. “Even at home, whenever you make a mistake, your husband may go like ‘ah, this girl!’ as if to suggest that if you were circumcised you would not have made such a mistake. I am tired of being called a girl all the time,” Doreen says. Because of such social pressure, many married women decide to undergo the ritual. Doreen’s neighbour, Lillian, already married for three years with two children, was one of 17 women circumcised here in December 2008. Before then, she was not allowed to serve her father-in-law tea or meet her husband’s friends when they visited. “We were smeared with ash-like powder, dressed in kitenge and we went dancing and singing from one home to another for the whole day,” Lillian, 23, says of the day before the ceremony. “I really enjoyed it.” Qualified support All people talked to in Kapchorwa said they supported the law stopping FGM, but they admit that the tradition is still valued among older and less educated people. With Parliament having passed the bill, it may be understandable that no one came out to oppose it, although there are smothered pockets of discomfort with a law that criminalises something that is a way of life – albeit a brutal one. One elder in Binyinyi, who asked not to be named, says the bill should have been widely explained to the people before being tabled in Parliament. He argues that if districts where FGM is practised get good girls’ secondary schools and government ensures that girls are educated, FGM will die by itself. “Since the law was passed, for us here we have just kept quiet; no MP has come down here to tell us what is in this law,” said the old man, proudly revealing that none of his four daughters was circumcised. “A law involves imprisonment and fines. Although we want this thing to go, it must go gradually.” Another 70-year-old man, Yovani, used the image of a chameleon to show the speed at which FGM should be allowed to die. “For sometime we were hearing that the councilors have decided on this thing and we heard about the law from Parliament, which is a good thing, but we were not updated properly,” Yovani said. It is thus clear that the war against FGM has been fought by a loose alliance of activists, politicians, progressive parents and younger enlightened people. But villages have many traditionalists who still value the practice. It is to these less educated conservatives that the war must be taken. 20-year fight The presence of Peter Kamuron at a January 7 meeting of activists against FGM in Kapchorwa town summed up a journey of 21 years. In 1988, Kamuron was chairman of the Kapchorwa District Council, which passed a resolution making FGM compulsory, meaning that women could be forced to face the knife. Kamuron, who later joined Parliament and the Constituent Assembly, recalls that the Sabiny were worried that their culture was under threat from external forces that were fighting female circumcision. This council resolution was opposed both by the educated elite in the area and by the government in Kampala. “Many grown-up daughters and their parents rejected the idea that force should be used to make every woman to go for circumcision,” says George William Cheborion, 84, chairman of the Sabiny Elders Association, formed to fight the council’s resolution. Cheborion, a retired primary school teacher, believes that education helped him to appreciate the dangers of FGM and to spare his seven daughters the brutal ritual. The following year, Kapchorwa councilors changed their resolution to make the cutting “optional” and the campaign against FGM has continued. By 2007, all Kapchorwa’s sub-county councils had bylaws banning FGM and in 2008, the district council made the ordinance prohibiting the practice, before the national law followed last month. Cheborion knows that some of his fellow Sabiny people still value FGM, but estimates that they may have reduced to barely 20% of the population. Education Sixty years ago, says Kapchorwa LC-V Chairman, Nelson Chelimo, it would be unthinkable that a law would be passed banning FGM. And although the law is now in place, it will take some time and a lot of work to eradicate FGM completely. “Of course there are a lot of disadvantages of FGM but because it is a way of life, not everybody is going to look at the law positively,” says Chelimo. “In other societies where laws have been made against what is seen as cultural, you find that the practices may go underground.” This is true for the United Kingdom, which made a law prohibiting FGM in 1985 and another, in 2003, banning girls from being taken abroad to be circumcised. The Independent newspaper reported last month that no one had been convicted under the British law in 25 years, although thousands of girls have been secretly circumcised. As the cases of Doreen and elder Cheborion show, one weapon against FGM has been education. Girls and parents who have studied beyond Senior Four have tended to shun the practice. But some of these educated girls have, after getting married, opted for circumcision in order to avoid the stigma directed at uncircumcised married women. LC-V boss Chelimo believes education will also help to curb this psychological torture that drives FGM. “Very often people who pressurise others are those who never went to school. You can’t find a graduate woman torturing another because of something [FGM] that is not really very useful,” Chelimo says. He also urges sustained sensitisation in villages in communities where FGM is practised to educate people both about the new law and about the dangers of FGM. According to Ms Brenda Malinga, a national programme officer at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Kampala, there is some money, from a 17-member programme, for supporting community dialogue against FGM, but more will be needed. Malinga says more money should be raised once the Ministry of Gender completes a national strategy on implementing the FGM law, which is expected soon. In Kapchorwa and Bukwo districts, the body most associated with fighting the practice is REACH, formerly a UNFPA programme and now an NGO led by Ms Beatrice Chelangat. Since January 1996, REACH (Reproductive, Educational and Community Health) has been campaigning in communities against FGM. They have also lobbied local and central government officials and Parliament for support. Hence in Kapchorwa and Bukwo the passing of the anti-FGM bill is seen as a victory for REACH as well. “What the community now wants is educating people about the law that has been passed so that they can get to those resistant people who feel that FGM is still the way to graduate to womanhood,” Chelangat says. “I met a team from Bukwo yesterday and they asked for the Bill. They want to take it to the people so that people know. We don’t want our women to be cut this season of 2010.”