UGANDA: The Fight Against Female Circumcision

FEMALE circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation is not a subject often heard in the corridors of Uganda's Parliament even if there are at least two circumcised female legislators, and scores of MP's who oppose the practice.

For women like Ms Susan Chebet of Bukwo District, a law banning the practice will come too late- but is badly needed. Ms Chebet, 32, is unable to have a natural birth because of a serious condition she got as a result of being circumcised when she was a young girl.

Her three children have all been born by caesarean section. Doctors have told her that she should not bear more children.

"I will never forget the woman who circumcised me. I was told I cannot be operated for more than three times and therefore I cannot have more than three children, yet my plan was to have five," Ms Chebet laments.

Ms Doreen Chemtai of Tingey in Kapchorwa has another story. She lost a lot of blood and almost died after her circumcision went wrong. It was only the beginning of her troubles. Poor health services meant that her injuries were so poorly managed that she needed another operation. At the end she could not properly pass urine and is now partially disabled.

Ms Chebet and Ms Chemtai are just a couple of hundreds of females whose lives, health and livelihood are affected by female circumcision.

The practice is restricted to the mountainous eastern districts of Kapchorwa and Bukwo which is one reason why it is hardly an issue of public debate.

Female circumcision involves removing part of or all of the female genitalia. At its crudest it involves scrapping out a woman's private parts, severing the clitoris and surrounding tissue. In most areas it is conducted by old women (traditional surgeons) in conditions of questionable hygiene and the risk of infection is high.

There is a fair amount of stigma associated with it too. The female legislators from the area are against the practice but unable to step forward to speak against it for "political reasons".

But male MPs like Mr Herbert Sabila (Tingey NRM) have come out to condemn the practice and are strongly pushing for the law to ban it. As a human rights issue female circumcision is yet to gain any traction.

The practice affects menstruation, makes sex difficult and painful and can cause problems when a woman gives birth.

Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (Reach)

programme with funding from the United Nations Population Fund, has for the last ten years been mobilising women in Kapchorwa and Bukwo against the practice with some success.

Many informed people, especially the educated ones are shunning the practice. Ms Beatrice Chelangat who heads the effort however says many rural communities refuse to give it up due to cultural beliefs and fear of being excommunicated.

She says many girls are coerced into circumcision while others are isolated for refusing to be circumcised.

"I escaped the circumcision but I am not yet safe. The community is still trying to forcefully circumcise me. During female circumcision period, am guarded by soldiers," she said.

In the Sabiny community uncircumcised women cannot get husbands, are not allowed to go to the spring to fetch water, cannot collect food from the granary and cannot clean the kraal.

They are considered 'incomplete' women. Such discrimination has caused outrage among public health and human rights groups. And now some MPs are preparing a private members bill to outlaw the practice.

The draft law titled "The Prohibition of Female Genital Cutting Bill" is expected to come before the House from the Parliamentary Forum for Food Security, Population and Development.

Dr Chris Baryomunsi (Kinkizi East, NRM) who chairs the forum confirmed to Daily Monitor that he will bring the proposed law before the main plenary for debate soon after the Easter holiday.

The law is a brainchild of legislative activist and MP at the East African Parliament Dora Byamukama who last year successfully challenged the unfair sections of the criminal adultery law in Uganda.

In its current form the draft law proposes a 5-7 year prison sentence for "any person who violates or attempts to violate the physical integrity of the female genital organ or aids a person to perform the act".

If the circumcision results in death the offender would be guilty of a felony and face 10 years in jail. The law does not consider cultural tradition and ritual a valid defence.

Female circumcision may already be in violation of several sections of the Uganda constitution which outlaws repugnant cultural practices or any acts that are biased against women on the basis of their gender.

The proposed law has been welcomed by many elders and district authorities in Kapchorwa and Bukwo Ms Chelangat says. Mr Peter Kemuron, an elder says the practice was meant to keep women faithful to their husbands who in the past would be gone for long periods during times of war.

Among the Sabiny the circumcision season starts on December 1, and ends before the New Year. Girls aged 12 to 14 are eligible and its practitioners consider it an automatic qualification for marriage.

Women like Ms Chebet will disagree about the quality of marriage a circumcised woman can expect and will hope a law succeeds to free more girls from its bloody grip.


AUTHOR: Agness Nandutu

URL: Click here

DATE: 30/03/2008

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