Female circumcision: Uganda still has a long way to zero tolerance

Friday February 6 2015

Allan Mwanga and Kirwoko LC3 councillor Stephen

Allan Mwanga and Kirwoko LC3 councillor Stephen Chelimo (in coat) address a meeting in Karasa, Matingot village, Kirwoko Parish, Kaptanya Sub-county in Kapchorwa District recently. PHOTO BY BRIAN MUTEBI 



Horrifying were the still pictures presented in court as evidence of the crime committed. Women who were covered chest-up lay on the ground helpless. Their legs were spread wide apart.

What was supposed to be these women’s dignity had all but been ruthlessly eroded. The sight was distressing.

This piece of evidence combined with a medical report and witnesses convinced Kapchorwa Grade I Magistrate, Paul Okedi to convict four women for performing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The women pleaded guilty, saying their husbands threatened them with divorce if they refused to be mutilated. Two of the men were convicted for abating FGM.

Mr Okedi sentenced each of them to four years in jail. This is one way the fight against FGM has made headway, however the fight is far from over.

Today the world joins hands to observe the International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM as it has been doing every February 6, since 2003


The United Nations earmarked this day to raise awareness and educate people about the dangers of FGM. This year, there is a call to involve medical personnel in the fight, under the theme, “Mobilisation and Involvement of Health Personnel to Accelerate Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation”. However, in Uganda the strategy is different.

“We are focusing our sensitisation activities for clan elders because they are a strong force in this practice,” Ms Esther Cherop, from the UN Joint Programme says.

The reason for this strategy is because FGM is deeply rooted in the Sabiny culture, as an initiation rite for girls from girlhood to womanhood. The elders, who are the overseers of all cultural things, are therefore some of the people who can convince their communities to reject the act.

Another way is to integrate the people who perform FGM into development programmes. “When they abandon the practice, it is like a lost source of income. So giving them an alternative source of livelihood is important,” says Ms Cherop.

A conversation last February with 56-year old Annah Cheporeto revealed that they earn between Shs20,000 and Shs30,000 per person they perform FGM on. Therefore it is a business for some. Ms Cheporeto has since given up participation in FGM. She handed over her knife last year.

However, not everyone is willing to hand over their tools. In 2010, FGM became a crime when the Anti FGM Act was put in place, attracting a maximum sentence of 10 years for committing the act and seven years for abating it.

Following the passing of the Act however, FGM perpetuators developed new tactics, mutilating girls and women at night in Sebei’s hard-to-reach valleys and hills. Apprehending culprits has thus been, according to the Kapchorwa District Police Commander (DPC), Mr Patrick Odokonyero, a hard task.

“We work with officers who come from the very communities where FGM is carried out so sometimes as we plan arrests, information reaches the perpetrators and before we get there, they have vanished,” he says.

A recent visit to Karasa, which is in Matingot village, Kirwoko Parish Kaptanya Sub-county in Kapchorwa District, showed just how far the fight still needs to go.

In Karasa, it has been less than a month since eight people were arrested, charged, and six convicted of FGM offences. Residents said police arrested their colleagues arbitrarily and therefore are still furious. They accuse the police and anti-FGM campaigners of working to destroy their culture.

A man in this community, who a section of residents suspected to have reported the perpetrators to the police, was attacked and beaten severely. They also threatened to “cut” Beatrice Chelangat, the executive director, Reach programme, an organisation that campaigns against FGM, if she ever set foot in Karasa.

In 2012, police had two nasty experiences here. Officers who came to arrest FGM suspects ended up being “arrested” by the residents. In another incident, policemen were attacked by residents with machetes. Police failed in their attempt to arrest suspects.

In a November 19 operation last year, residents claim police used excessive force but DPC Odokonyero says police “deployed enough personnel” so as to avoid repeat of the 2012 incident.

It is against this backdrop that our visit led us to a community meeting. Women and children sit separately from men, about five metres apart during the meeting. We wanted to know what these people’s perceptions to FGM are. But residents thought we were to report on the petition their leaders filed with the Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) following the conviction of their fellow residents.

The petition was filed with UHRC Kapchorwa field office by Mr Stephen Cherimo on behalf of the community on November 24, five days after the conviction.

Mr Chelimo is the Kirwoko LC III councillor and vice chairperson for Kaptanya Sub-county. From the petition, a copy of which we saw, you can tell Mr Chelimo and his people know performing FGM is a crime. The petition addresses UHRC on the plight of children of the convicts only.

“They (the convicts) were produced to Kapchorwa Magistrate Grade I court and charged on two counts,” the petition reads, “The challenge here is that 10 young children have been left behind without parental care, lack of food…these children have nothing to eat. It’s for this reason that we come to UHRC on matters of the children.”

Mr Chelimo accuses individuals and agencies campaigning against FGM of earning a living out of FGM. He acknowledges the existence of the law but claims nobody has ever told them about the negative effects of FGM. Besides loss of sexual pleasure on the part of a woman, which is her right, science has proved that FGM is associated with adverse health hazards such as obstructed childbirth that can result into fistula, among other health complications.

Mr Allan David Mwanga, who introduces himself as “the long serving general secretary” of Matingot village and chairperson of “this village meeting”, says the FGM law has destabilised their community.

“So what are we saying in summary?” he attracts the attention of everyone. “Advocates of ending FGM are cowards, cowards who are not circumcised but using our culture to earn a living.

If it was these (circumcised) women talking (campaigning against FGM),” he says while pointing to two elderly women, “then FGM would end but since it is those cowards talking, FGM will continue.” Mwanga’s remarks attract applause from majority of the people at the meeting.

Fifty-year old Kokop Chephehira underwent FMG and claims she has enjoyed her marriage.

Only a few people such as 32-year old Annet Chewoto, a Senior Two dropout and mother of two, are against FGM. Ms Chewoto says she did not undergo FMG and believes she has no ‘spirits’, adding that people here believe women who are not circumcised are unclean and have spirits that cause diseases.

Such women are not allowed to attend community festivals along with their husbands, a form of discrimination that forces many women to succumb to the knife.

The interventions
Efforts to curb FGM in Sebei started way back in the 1990s. The message has been one – zero tolerance, FGM has no place in the 21st century. The UN population agency, United Nations Population Fund, provides funds to local organisations such as Reach Programme and Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU) to sensitise communities against FGM through elders’ associations, community meetings, in schools and on radio stations.

However, beside the challenges mentioned, some locals believe the FGM fight in Sebei has a political angle. A section of elders threaten not to vote for the ruling NRM party candidates unless the President pardons the FGM convicts and scraps the Anti-FGM law.

In Karasa, one thing is clear. Kapchengwen, Chelimo and their followers do not care much about the pain women and girls are subjected to while undergoing FGM or the consequences or the horrifying pictures of women who were mutilated. Therefore zero tolerance is still a long way to come.

fgm calamity
FGM relates to all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. This practice is an abuse of human rights and causes serious health complications, including fatal bleeding.

About 120 to 140 million women have been subjected to FGM and three million girls are at risk each year, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In Uganda, the Sebei sub-region – the districts of Kween, Bukwo and Kapchorwa have the highest number of girls who have undergone FGM.