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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Uganda: Over 200 Sabiny Girls to be Circumcised

November 9, 2010
Frederick Womakuyu

Kampala — Elders in Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts are preparing to circumcise over 200 girls next month despite a new law banning the practice.

They swear that the whole tribe would rather go to prison than abolish a custom they inherited from their ancestors.

The practice, commonly referred to as female circumcision, is mostly practiced among the Sabiny, who occupy Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts on the northern slopes of Mt Elgon. The United Nations categorises it as female genital mutilation (FGM) because it damages a woman's sexuality and leads to various complications. FGM refers to the removal of the external female genitalia.

Accordingly, last December parliament passed a law banning female circumcision. President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law on March 17, 2010 and it took effect on April 9, 2010.

The law argues that FGM infringes on the rights of the woman and also leads to health hazards, including excessive bleeding, death, birth complications and exposure to illnesses. The law criminalises the practice, calls for prosecution of offenders and protection of victims. Anyone caught doing it faces 10 years in jail or life imprisonment if the victim dies.

But the Sabiny are unfazed by this law. The vice-chairman of Bukwo district, John Chelangat, says over 200 girls are being prepared for the practice beginning on December 1 and neither he nor other political leaders are able to stop it. The men like it because circumcised women are less interested in sex and are, therefore, less likely to have extramarital affairs. The girls do not want to be considered outcasts, so they go for the knife.

"This is a very sensitive period and no politician will talk about abolishing FGM because we shall lose votes. Myself, I will not talk about FGM because I know this will land me into the political dustbin," says Chelangat.

Consequently, as the December 1, 2010 circumcision nears, preparations to grace the ritual are in high gear in Sebei region.

In Bukwo district, the residents had a bumper harvest of maize, sorghum and millet that is being used for making local brew (Malwa) to entertain the revelers and also aid in performing sacred rituals, only known to the Sabiny people.

Kokop Chebet, 70, a mentor from Matibeyi village in Suam sub-county-Bukwo, says she has received applications from over 20 girls wishing to be prepared for the ritual.

"They came to me in January and I have been training them on how to go through the ritual. They told me they want to become women like others because they are tired of being scolded by the community that still calls them girls because they are not cut," she adds.

Alice Kokop, 65, another mentor from Suam says she has also received about 15 applications from girls in Kabei sub-county wishing to be cut.

Other girls are to come from Chesower and Bukwo Town Council sub-counties. "I have already taken them through a series of trainings and they are about to be ready. We shall cut the first group in the first week of December," Kokop explains.

Asked about the law prohibiting FGM, the two said a law cannot stop the cultural rite of the Sabiny people unless the community agrees with it.

Twenty-year-old Ana Chebet is a resident of Matibeyi village in Suam. Married with three children, Chebet has always been scolded by the community for not undergoing circumcision that passes her from childhood to adulthood.

"I cannot milk a cow or climb into the family granary. Whenever I go to the well, other women throw scorn at me because I am not cut," adds Chebet, who will be one of the candidates this December.

She says mentors trained her how to dance when preparing for the ritual, the kind of food to eat, including posho, beans, honey and fermented milk to replace lost energy and blood.

Alice Chemutai, 17, another resident of Matibeyi, was convinced by her aunt to undergo female circumcision. But because she is educated she refused and her father supported her.

She recites an endless list of young girls who have dropped out of school to get married after the ritual and those who have had birth complications, bleeding and infections after.

"I will never get circumcised because this will not only infringe on my rights of womanhood but will also expose me to long-term health hazards. I am happy my father and mother support me against other relatives," adds Chemutai, a Senior Three student at Amananga High School in Suam.

According to the law, a person commits aggravated FGM in situations where death occurs or where the victim is disabled or is infected with HIV/AIDS.

A person also commits aggravated FGM where the offender is a parent, guardian or person having control over the victim or where the act is done by a health worker.

The law punishes a person who commits aggravated FGM with life imprisonment.

A person who carries out FGM shall be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 10 years. People who participate or aid FGM shall be jailed.

The Sabiny people claim they do not fear the law and they are ready to die for FGM. "This law was not initiated or brought by the people of Sebei. It was brought by the people who do not understand why we carry out circumcision," adds Alice Kokop.

According to Sabiny customs and traditions, female circumcision has been around for over 2,000 years and it is carried out to convert a female from childhood to adulthood. Females who are not circumcised are not called women and they are not supposed to carry out certain home activities like milking a cow, climbing into a family granary and talking with the elders.