KAMPALA – President Yoweri Museveni signed into law a bill criminalising Female Genital Mutilation in 2010, the cruel practice where young girls are subjected to the knife in Sebei and Karamoja sub-regions in Eastern Uganda.
But while the new law is now operational, it’s completely a different story in the eastern remote parts of the country where preparations for 2018 female circumcision are well underway.
Reports indicate that FGM is still thriving behind closed curtains in Kapchorwa, Kween, Bukwo [Sebei districts] and Amudat, Tepeth and Kadama [Karamoja]
According to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (2011), the FGM prevalence in the country stands at 1.4 per cent [for girls and women (aged 15-49 years], but the figure rises in communities where the practice continues. This is despite the tough penalties imposed on those convicted.
The Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH], an NGO that is involved in the fight against FGM says because of fear of the law, some communities that continue to perform the rite do so secretly.
Ms Beatrice Chelangat, the director General of REACH says although the numbers of FGM are dropping due to education and sensitisation, there are still traditionalists who view it as a culture that distinguishes them from other tribes and these continue to practice the culture in caves, in the bushes across the borders in Kenya despite the spirited efforts to eliminate it.
Chelangat adds; “Many girls are cut in hidden or remote places, while others are crossed the border via porous entry points into the bushes and caves to be cut in Kenya, making it difficult to track them.”
She explained that from a human rights perspective, the practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination on minors and it also violates the rights of the child, breaching rights to health, security, physical integrity, freedom from degrading treatment and sometimes resulting into death.
FGM beyond the borders
Ms Chelangat explained that the cross-border activity of perpetrators of FGM is alarming, as most Sabiny parents cross the borders to Kenya to cut their children and bring them back to Uganda.
She adds that this is because the communities that patronise the practice are now aware that FGM is a crime in Uganda.
“While FGM is also outlawed in Kenya, the perpetrators prefer the “cross-border cutting” because nobody will identify them and report them to the police. And at times parents claim that they are going for a visit in Kenya when actually they are taking the young girls for FGM,” added Ms Chelangat.
Girls preparing for FGM
If you visited the remote villages in Kween and Bukwo, you will notice girls as young as 13 years singing in Kupsabiny, a local dialect and dancing in the bushes.
“Tombo chemuto owo! tombo chemuto owo! Mariwey, tombo chemuto! tumbo chemuto owo. Chebo namukweza owo! nte Kachoo, chepo namukweza, tombo chemuto owo! Abarojii kiketya, abaroji kiketya na aboraji kiketya, sande simburi, tomo chemuto owo.”
Loosely meaning; “I am not circumcised; here I come from Mariwey, daughter of Namukweza. I have agreed to take circumcision, pave way for me, my ‘surgeon’ is Sande Simbura,” the teenage girls sing in preparation for the circumcision which is carried out by elders with no medical training.
This tells you that the preparations for this year’s female circumcision are well underway in the remote villages of Bukwo and Kween districts.
The spike in cases of FGM in Sebei sub-region that occur around December is the reason that period is referred to as the ‘cutting season’.
It is our culture that makes us distinct
Mr Nelson Chelimo, the former LCV chairman for Kapchorwa and now in Kween says among the traditional Sabiny communities FGM is still held in high esteem.
He explained that in Sebei some communities have turned to caves, bushes and across Kenya to continue with FGM, instead of completely doing away with it and that they give it some credence, claiming that FGM is their culture and they can’t abandon it.
Mr Chelimo adds that FGM connects with other social issues such as girls not completing education and growing into women who have poor literacy; pressure to accept early or child marriage.
Ms Joyce Munanda, a victim of FGM in 1978 and now an advocate against FGM say since the 2010 anti-FGM Act, the practice has gone underground and that it now takes places at night in the bushes, caves and across the border.
She explained that there are reports of increases in cases of FGM following the coming into force of the law, with communities reportedly continuing to cut in defiance of the law.
“And gathering reliable data on FGM in these places is challenging due to the fact that the practice is often now carried out in secret or across the border in Kenya for fear of prosecution, and regions where FGM is practiced are remote,” said Ms Munanda.
The 2016 REACH FGM report says FGM is a social convention (norm); the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing, as well as the need to be accepted socially and the fear of being rejected by the community, as the strong motivations that perpetuate the practice.
“And add that in some communities, FGM is almost universally performed and unquestioned,” reads the REACH report in part.
Although the practice is considered a necessary part of raising a girl, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage, Jalia Chemayek, 16 of Binyiny Secondary School and Sylivia Chebet 15, of Kapchesombe Secondary School are determined to inspire other Sabiny young girls to change the lifestyle of the Sabiny community.
“We refused to take FGM, we have stood our word and no threats will make us change our mind, we are prepared to drag our parents to court should they dare force us, we must remain at school. Our target is to inspire others to say no to FGM and yes to education,” said Ms Chemayek.
Who is at risk?
The procedure is mostly carried out on young girls between six years and adolescence, and occasionally on adult women.
“More than 200 girls in Sebei sub-region alone are estimated to be at risk of FGM this year alone unless the government monitors the porous borders to Kenya, caves and bushes,” said Ms Chelangat.
In the villages of Kapsarur, Kireteyi, Riwo, Kaptererwo, Chesmat, Kameti, Tulem, Nyalit, Benet and Binyiny where people are still stuck in the tradition, preparations are in full gear sending fears that the illiterate might never drop FGM.
Mr Stephen Matek, a local leader in Chesower says the illiterate who regard FGM in high esteem and as the only passage for young girls into adulthood, in the villages where ignorance regarding the law is still high there is a likelihood that FGM will take place this year.
“Although literate parents now fear the new law against FGM, many traditionalists and illiterate parents are already in gear preparing for a new season. And I believe many of the parents will do it stealthily at night or even cross to Kenya in the caves and bushes to practice FGM,” said Mr Matek
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) says there are about 200 million girls and women around the world who have gone through the cut and that they are going through consequences that are both physical and psychological but could last a lifetime.
“The procedure can cause severe bleeding, infections as well as complications urinating and during childbirth. This is a big threat to the reproductive health of women and girls,” says Mr Alain Sibenaler the UNFPA country representative for Uganda.
What to be done
Ms Chelangat says due to the particular ethnic and cultural traditions and beliefs that underpin FGM, organisations involved in the fight against FGM need to tailor anti-FGM initiatives and strategies accordingly.
She added that although there are still many challenges to overcome before FGM is eradicated in Uganda, with increased awareness of the FGM law and active anti-FGM programmes progress will be made in a positive direction.
Ms Esther Anyakun, the Woman Member of Parliament for Nakapiriprit says each of the people from FGM circumcising districts must be vigilant.
“I know that girls who might be taken abroad for ‘cutting’ will be young, possibly not fully aware of why they are going, and if they are they may not feel able to speak out so it is important to watch for warning signs if you know anyone who you believe is at risk,” said Ms Anyakun, who comes from a region that circumcises girls.
She adds that potential warning signs could be, a planned trip to Kenya this FGM season, a girl may talk about visiting relatives for a special ceremony or event and a holiday that includes additional time away before, or at the end of, the FGM season.
Ms Pamela Nasiyo, the publicity secretary for Uganda Women Parliamentary Association [UWOPA] said it takes a village to raise a child – but conversations with a community in Uganda suggest it will take family, community and government support to end FGM for eternity.
She proposed incorporating other ethnic groups and internal migrants in the anti-FGM strategies, sustainable funding, considering FGM within the Millennium Development Goals and post-MDG framework, facilitating education on health and FGM and advocating for girls’ education and improvements in managing health complications of FGM, and more resources for sexual and reproductive health education, increased advocacy and lobbying, increased law enforcement, maintain effective media campaigns and encouraging faith-based organisations to act as agents of change and be proactive in ending FGM.
The procedure comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. The Female circumcision often involves partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora.
FGM is practiced by the Sabiny community in Kapchorwa, Kween and Bukwo districts, as well as the Tepeth and Pokot in Amudat, Nakapiripirit, and Moroto districts.