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UGANDA: We Must Address Female Genital Mutilation Urgently

Last week, there were media debates on whether culture supercedes human rights which stemmed mainly from a case of a woman from Sebei who had acquired a permanent disability arising from female genital mutilation.

This analysis delves deep into one of the most common rites of passage - female genital mutilation - among girls and young women who hail from Bukwo, Kapchorwa and some parts of Nakapiripirit.

The day any Sabiny girl is circumcised is considered to be the most important day in her life. It is that long awaited day when a girl not only becomes a full member of the society but also a candidate for marriage.

It is the day when her prospective husband can be sure that she will be a faithful partner. That is why those who evade this rite are barred from participating in public life.

In such areas, a discourse on female genital mutilation can strike sensitive chords and can evoke strong responses from community. This is very true given that one’s cultural practices define his or her identity, sense of belonging, pride and promotes social cohesion.

Criticising such a culture from outside is seen by insiders as being judgmental. If that is so, then what set of values and value standards can we legitimately use to interrogate cultural behaviour? This is where human rights come in - to set a universal standard of norms and values that regulate behaviour! Every culture has positive and negative aspects.

There are cultural practices that protect and promote human rights but there are others which restrict human rights. Taking a ‘romanticised’ notion of culture is not a good beginning point for discussion as it confuses or reduces ‘right’ to ‘tradition’, ‘good’ to ‘old’, and ‘obligatory’ to ‘habitual’.

Respecting other people’s cultures is very important but it does not tantamount to tolerating practices that are detrimental to the physical and mental well-being of its members, most especially girls and women.

The right to culture or to participate in cultural life is often evoked by those who defend the necessity of preserving traditional practices, including those that impair the well-being of girls and women, and infringe on their rights. Our constitution, culture, policy and Local Government Act recognise the importance and necessity of respecting one’s culture and the right to culture.

Objectively, the enjoyment of the right to culture or practice cultural life should never result in negation of other rights contained in the same laws and policies, and the nullification of the intent and spirit of the rights protected in such laws and policies.

The U N Committee on the Rights of the Child has classified female genital mutilation as the cruellest and severest forms of torture against girls and young women the world over. A few years ago, most parts of Ethiopia were having high rate of female genital mutilation.

Women victims were experiencing a lot of difficulty during delivery and some even contracted HIV in the process. The government then responded by making reforms in focal sectors to curtail the vice. Three years down the road, the practice of this social mayhem have declined drastically.

The first step that the government took was to criminalise female genital mutilation. This was successfully done by having it included in the country’s criminal code. Perpetrators undergo imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.

This move has gone along way in deterring many from performing this act. Girls and women were themselves empowered to fight female genital mutilation by civil society organisations.

This gave them confidence and they took the lead in the defense of their rights. The women’s participation was so crucial in changing the power dynamics both at home and in the public space.

Awareness raising activities were also conducted to break the silence on the impact of female genital mutilation on the development of girls, young women and society as a whole. Initially, girls had been socialised from birth to accept the inferior status ascribed to them by the dominant power holders in society and the necessity of subscribing to female genital mutilation and were resisting efforts to end female genital mutilation.

We should urgently follow the above steps to combat female genital mutilation and avoid being a laughing stock when the next generation rewrites the history of protecting girls from harmful traditional practices in Uganda.

SOURCE: Monitor Online

AUTHOR: Ansel Wandega

URL: Click here

DATE: 02/08/2009

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