UGANDA: Culture Killing Girls in Kapchorwa
In much of the world its sounds strange and even barbaric, but in Judith Natari's community, a girl whose genitals haven't been cut is considered impure, making her subject to ridicule and unlikely to find a husband. So when Natari was growing up, her parents could not wait for her turn to undergo the procedure.
Their pride would later turn to bitterness. Some 14 years after the 1990 procedure, their daughter became paralyzed from her waist down. Today, Natari is confined to a wheel chair. She cannot fetch water on her own, dig in the garden, or perform other household chores. And this appears likely to be her fate for the rest of her life.
Female circumcision -- or, as a growing number of critics call it, female genital mutiliation -- is still practiced in Uganda and many other parts of the world, even though women rights advocates decry it as cruel, and health experts say it is dangerous.
Natari's experience demonstrates the sorrow the procedure causes -- and just how hard a time its opponents will have to end it.
In December 1976, aged 16, Natari recalls being woken up early in the morning as they set off to the home of the circumciser, locally referred to as a "surgeon" who was to perform the circumcision ritual. Two other girls from the same village were supposed to be circumcised with Natari. They were accompanied by their parents, relatives and clan elders.
At the circumcisers' home, the girls were taken to the back of the house and told to lie on the ground. An aged woman who was to perform the ritual arrived shortly amid cheers and ululation from the elders and the crowd. The circumciser was holding a blunt knife; she stood first over the head of the first girl and performed the cut within a matter of seconds. The same process was repeated for all the girls. There are two other women, who usually accompanied the circumciser to help her carry her tools and clean the girls after the cutting has been performed.
This is the ritual of female genital mutilation or circumcision that is practiced among the Sabiny of Kapchorwa in eastern Uganda.
It is perceived as an important ritual that signifies a girls' entry into womanhood
The practice which involves the partial or total excision of the external female genitalia is usually performed by a female elder using a razor, knife, or piece of glass. It is seen as a way of ensuring that a woman is clean, chaste, and ready for marriage.
Women who are not circumcised are often times associated with promiscuity, lack of social respectability and face prejudice in their daily lives.
For the Sabiny, initiation ceremonies involving FGM are carried out every even year for girls between the ages of 14 and 16 years.
This is the sad culture.
But it is exposing girls to pain and health problems, given that at times the surgery is performed without anaesthetic or sterilisation, leading to infections, over bleeding and even death.
It is such crude procedures that the United Nations Population Fund and other human rights and health experts continue to condemn, calling for the protection of girls and women against the practice.
Natari is one of several Sabiny women whose circumcision ended in debilitating health problems.
She remembers being the last of the three girls to be circumcised. "It was a very painful experience but we all had to go through it else you were ridiculed in the whole village and isolated," Natari said.
After the circumcision, Natari was given some herbal medicine which she would rub in her private parts to prevent infection and accelerate the healing process.
She was cautioned by the circumciser on the strict use of the medicine, which she obliged. One year after the circumcision in 1977, Natari got married to Mr Stephen Natari. She gave birth to her first two children with no complications. After giving birth to her third born, Ms Natari started developing frequent body pain especially around her waist and legs.
"I started falling sick regularly and when I went to Kapchorwa hospital, the doctor told me that it's because the baby was big that's why I was experiencing pain," she said.
But Ms Natari continued experiencing pain in her legs and lower abdomen but doctors could not find the exact cause of the pain.
Her husband brought her first to Mulago National Referral Hospital, and later to Nsambya Hospital without success. As Ms Natari was nursing her sickness, the two other girls who had been circumcised with her also fell sick with abdominal pain and aching legs. Within no time, all the three women were limping.
A village meeting was called to discuss the fate of the three women and clan elders resolved that the women be taken back to the circumciser to find out what had gone wrong.
"It's then that my parents started wondering what had gone wrong. Together with the clan elders, they decided to take me back to the circumciser who gave me herbs,' 'Natari recalled.
Ms Natari spent a few more months at the home of the circumciser as she underwent treatment. When her health started improving, she returned home.
The pain continued and before long, Natari would not walk anymore. That's when it dawned on her that she had been disabled forever. As she recounts her story, Natari's face betrays the pain that female circumcision has brought to this 48-year-old woman.
Ms Natari regrets having been circumcised, but is resigned to the fact that it is too late for her now. Her two colleagues died three years ago. Her 54-year-old peasant husband, Mr Stephen Natari has gone through a lot of trauma, seeing his wife becoming disabled because of circumcision. He has spent the last 18 years nursing her, with not much support from relatives or the community.
"When she becomes sick, that's another problem. The health centre is far away and yet transport is hard to get," says Mr Natari.
The easiest means of transport for them is a bicycle but Natari cannot sit on a bicycle because of her condition so she has to be pushed on a wheel chair which takes much more time.
"It's difficult for me to cope because I don't work and I am just a farmer and when I go to the garden, I have to make sure that I leave her behind with someone to look after her because she cannot do anything," Mr Natari adds.
Ms Natari lives with constant pain in her back and legs. She sometimes gets swellings in her legs because of sitting in one place for long since she cannot move from place to place.
"I feel pain whenever I remember what happened to me and I don't want anybody to go through this. There is already a campaign against the practice and I hope it will keep our girls safe," Natari said.
Mr John William Cheborion, the chairperson of the Sabiny Elders Association said that with intensive campaign against the practice, people are slowly beginning to abandon it.
"We have partly succeeded but it's very expensive to fight it. It's a culture which belongs to the community and to remove it is not easy," said Mzee Cheborion.
Mr Cheborion who is 80 years old has been at the forefront of fighting against the practice of FGM since 1992. "It's a big war which is not seen but you have to offer yourself to eliminate it from our society. Our children have been crippled and others have lost their lives just because of culture," Mzee Cheborion explained.
He, however, said that currently the practice is remains prevalent among the most illiterate communities. "Even among the illiterates, most of the people are circumcising the girls in secrecy," Mr Cheborion says.
AUTHOR: Evelyn Lirri
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