UGANDA: Genital Mutilation - Women Grapple With a Deadly Tradition

IN the scorching afternoon sunshine, Philis Yapchemusto stands in the compound of a tiny building that houses the headquarters of Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (REACH) programme.

The community-based programme was established in Kapchorwa to improve reproductive health conditions and stop female genital mutilation.

Yapchemusto is talking to students from different universities in Uganda about a subject very close to her heart - female genital mutilation. This refers to partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genitals for cultural or other non-medical reasons.

She points in different directions, waves her arms and even pats herself in a manner that suggests a passionate description of events. "I was a few days away from the knife," she tells the attentive group as I join in the conversation. "It was by God's grace that I survived..." she adds and then keeps quite.

Yapchemusto is one of the few lucky women who survived a practice that has devastated the lives of many women and their immediate families, not just in Kapchorwa but also the entire world.

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) three million women and girls face genital mutilation every year and between 100 to 140 million women have already undergone the practice.

The majority live in 28 countries in Africa and Western Asia. According to REACH programme statistics, 6198 women underwent genital mutilation between 1990 and 2004 in Kapchorwa.

And after decades of practising the deadly ritual, its devastating effects on the district are all too evident.

"We have lost our daughters to this cruel practice while others have been crippled," says George William Cheborion, the chairperson of the Village Elder's Association of Kapchorwa.

Cheborion says in rural areas where 95.4% of the population in Kapchorwa resides, many young girls drop out of school to undergo genital mutilation and thereafter get married.

Thus it has undermined education in the society. Peter Kamuron, a REACH Executive Board member said female genital mutilation has contributed to poverty in the area.

The ceremonies are done in December of every even year. The season is considered to be one of the most time wasting and economically-draining time of the year in this region. People keep away from work and spend about three or four months preparing for the ceremonies. One village elder says this has left many people poor.

He said the most affected areas include Kwanyiny, Benet, Kwosir, Kaproron, Binyiny, Kaptanya, Tegeres, Chema, Sipi and Kawowo.

While genital mutilation affects the entire society, it is the health of women, particularly the adolescent girls that is most at risk.

"Adolescent pregnancies and unsafe deliveries happen to young mothers some of whom are victims of genital mutilation and early marriages," says Beatrice Chemisto, the district health visitor. Chemisto regrets that many adolescent girls drop out of school early, which makes them incapable of making informed decisions about their reproductive health.

Cultural bottlenecks

For many years, female genital mutilation, which is a Sabiny tradition, was widely practiced in Kapchorwa. The practice has not been easy to eradicate.

"In rural areas, an uncircumcised woman is frowned upon. Such a person cannot be allowed to draw water at the same well as her circumcised counterparts (they have identification bodily marks)," says Robert Cherop, the REACH deputy director general.

Female genital mutilation is also a major source of income for the families of the circumcised girls and the 'surgeons' (elderly women who perform the exercise). The family of the girl receives money, cows, hens and foodstuffs while a 'surgeon' earns about sh2m in addition to food and cows.

"This is where I have been earning money to look after myself and my family. How will I survive without it," wonders Mukowa Yariwo, who has been a surgeon for 14 years.

It has also been difficult to fight the tradition because there are no legal instruments against the practice.

However, the situation in and around Kapchorwa town is improving thanks to the sensitisation programmes conducted by REACH programme with support from the UNFP.

For 12 years, REACH has worked with local leaders to educate communities, about the dangers of genital mutilation and promote quality reproductive health. Because of their efforts genital mutilation in Kapchorwa has declined from 544 cases in 2004 to 226 in 2006.


AUTHOR: Stephen Ssenkaaba

URL: Click here

DATE: 09/07/2008

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