Saturday July 10 2010

When culture confronts health and the law

Residents gather around Sebei teenage girls who

Residents gather around Sebei teenage girls who have just undergone female genital mutilation while Left, Prisca Korein, a 62-year-old traditional surgeon, displays razor blades used to perform the practice on December 15, 2008. 

It is a culture that dates 50 years back. However, because of increasing risks to human life, female genital mutilation has been banned by the government. David Mafabi explores how the Sabiny community is responding to the new law criminalising the practice.

President Yoweri Museveni recently signed into law a bill criminalising Female Genital Mutilation, the cruel practice where young girls are subjected to the knife in the remote villages of Bukwo District in Eastern Uganda. But while the new law is now operational, it’s completely a different story in these remote parts of the country where preparations for the next round of female circumcision are well underway.

As I approach Kalulu village in Kapyoyon sub-county in Bukwo district, a 15-year-old Sheila Chikwemoi carries firewood from the bush as she sings in Kupsabiny, a local dialect and dances.

“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 girl sings in preparation for the circumcision which is carried out by elders with no medical training.

Chikwemoi is one of many girls who have either voluntary or been coerced by their families to undergo FGM in December this year. The preparations for this year’s female circumcision are well underway in the villages of Kapsarur, Kireteyi, Riwo, Kaptererwo, Chesmat, Kameti, Tulem, Nyalit, Binyinyiny and Chesower.

The LC3 chairman for Chesower, Mr Stehen Matek, said although there is a new law criminalising female Genital Mutilation, very few people in the village know about the law. He said because of the high levels of illiteracy and the strong traditional beliefs about this cruel practice, the communities are in advanced stages of holding yet another season of subjecting young girls to the knife – a practice carried out to initial them into adulthood.

“Although literate parents fear the new law against FGM, many traditionalists and illiterate parents are already preparing for the new season. And I believe many of the parents will do it stealthily-possibly at night or across the border in Kenya,” Mr Matek said.

A traditional surgeon and now an advocate against FGM with Reproductive Education and Community Health programme, an NGO that spearheaded the law against FGM, Ms Mary Shellum says there is need for mobilisation and sensitisation of these communities not only about the new law but the health dangers they subject their children to.

“This new law against FGM can only be effective if the people are sensitized fully about its intention which is to save the lives and dignity of these young girls. Otherwise many people don’t known about it and are likely to take their girls to be mutilated during the new season,” says Ms Shellum in a resigned tone.
“There are laws against defilement, stealing, killing etc but don’t people commit these crimes? We need a lot of sensitisation and government should fund this and provide adequate security to ensure that nobody crosses the borders to Kenya to go and get circumcised,” she emphasises. “And I believe with sensitisation the practice will gradually go,” she adds.

Ms Joyce Munanda also an advocate against FGM who got circumcised in 1968 says whereas during the 60s it was considered to be a good traditional practice to the extent that young girls would cry in order to persuade their parents to take them for initiation and avoid being shunned and laughed at by the boys, the new law should be respected. “At times we even promised to commit suicide if the parents did not allow you to get circumcised as that was the only rite of passage to womanhood,” she said.

Under the new law Female Genital Mutilation promoters and surgeons face five years imprisonment if convicted for carrying out the practice.

The law says any person who performs, promotes FGM through any means violates the human rights of a woman and as such commits an offence and shall upon conviction be liable, where no other penalty is provided in other laws of Uganda to imprisonment of up to five years, a fine or both.

Apart from putting in place a law banning FGM, Ms Munanda says the government should consider providing an alternative source of income for the traditional surgeons in an effort to have them abandon the practice.

What is worrying, however, is that even the traditional surgeons don’t know about the new law. “Nobody has told us to abandon this culture inherited from our ancestors to keep the morality of our girls,” Mr Lazaro Chelimo, 68, a traditional surgeon in Kabei village says.

“This year I have two daughters prepared to be circumcised in December. I have started the preparations for the girls’ initiation into adulthood. Nothing is going to stop me from circumcising my daughters because their mother, grandmother and sisters have undergone this,” Mr Chelimo said.

“What does the law say about our culture? Should we abandon the culture of our ancestors? Get out of my home; I don’t want to see you. You must be one of the people campaigning against this. Tell others that the Sabiny will circumcise their girls as culture demands,” Mr Chelimo said before asking this writer to leave his home.

Mr Chelimo is just a representative of the many parents who are preparing for the December cultural days. But according to the Bukwo District population officer and FGM researcher, Mr Simon Alere, the rural residents have no information or knowledge of the law.

“There was a time the parliamentary committee on gender came here to talk about FGM but they only addressed us and the councilors. But in the villages people are asking how the law was passed without consulting them. This is the dilemma we are facing,” Mr Alere said.

Law harsh?
“People are saying the law is harsh, unfair and needs to be amended,” Mr Alere added. The LC5 Kapchorwa, Mr Nelson Chemonges is happy that the lay has been put in place.
“For us this is a wonderful idea, the long journey to end this practice has started. I can now sit here with relief and say that the first step is over. The next one is to bring all people on board through sensitization. I know it is not going to be easy to drop the practice but we have to ensure it does not take place here,” Mr Chelimo said.

But Ms Beatrice Chelangat of the Reproductive Education and Community Health [REACH], a community based NGO established in Kapchorwa to improve the reproductive health conditions and discard the harmful practice of FGM says sensitization has taken place and people are aware.

“We have seen FGM surgeons denounce the practice and hand over their implements to REACH and this means that parents, traditionalists should denounce the practice join REACH to end it or face the law,” said Ms Chelangat.