Late last week, an estimated 120 young women of the Sabiny ethnic group in Uganda were forced to undergo severe forms of genital mutilation despite a new law banning the practice. The mass "circumcision," involving the removal of the clitoris and other parts of their genitalia, took place in public with crowds looking on. The fact that leaders of the Sabiny carried out the genital mutilation despite the new law--in fact, in open defiance of it--has sparked public debate about the limitations of legal strategies operating in a vacuum.
In theory, the law poses strict penalties against those who perform or facilitate FGM.
According to the law, "aggravated FGM"--when death occurs or where the victim is disabled or is infected with HIV--results in life in prison. Parents, guardians, health workers, or "persons with control over the victim," can be charged with aggravated FGM. The law also states that "others who engage in FGM shall be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 10 years."
In practice, the law is being openly flouted.
FGM is one of those "cultural" practices, the sole purpose of which is to control women. According to the Sabiny, reports New Vision, "a girl is circumcised to initiate her into adulthood. The clitoris is cut out to interfere with a woman's arousal process."
It also interferes with her life and health. Where FGM does not lead to immediate death due to infection caused by the use of dirty instruments, it is associated with higher rates of pain during sex, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, problems urinating, and complications in labor and delivery leading to higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity. Not surprisingly, and complicating the overall picture, is the fact that FGM is practiced in cultures that also promote high fertility, measuring the value of women by the number of children they bear. More pregnancies lead to higher risks of complications.
Reports from the site of the mass circumcision of Sabiny girls and women are gut-wrenching. A New Vision reporter writes:
Some cried. Some were confused. Others still traumatised, while many were left speechless. They looked on in disbelief as a local female surgeon tried in vain thrice, probably using a very blunt knife, to cut off a girl's clitoris.
She then asked for another, similarly blunt knife and to make it work, applied extra force, going back and forth, the way a saw cuts into timber. The girl struggled not to show fear and to contain her trembling, which is culturally unacceptable and would have attracted scorn and ridicule from the attentive crowd.
As blood gushed from her private parts, the crowd urged the girls: "Be strong! You are almost done! Remain calm!"
Once cut, the girl was pushed aside, like a slaughtered chicken, her legs put together as if to stifle the pain and another descended upon.
Two knives were used to operate on 8 young women (whom the reports characterize as "girls.")
The girls "wrapped in dirty blankets and strewn all over a compound hosting two huts," were circumcised by a local female "surgeon."
The circumciser would first throw fine millet flour into their private parts to reduce friction and wetness.
She used the same knife to cut each of them. The knife was not sterilized, exposing all of them to the risk of the deadly HIV.
The cuts lasted close to 50 seconds. As the mutilated girls lay helpless, an old woman, threw millet flour over them to appease the spirits and ordered them to kneel so that the blood could pour out.
Most of the girls were barely in their early twenties but someone in the crowd said they were all married. "Girls here marry by their 15th birthdays," he said.
"A few minutes later, the girls were told to march into a hut where they would spend the next three weeks healing from the mutilation. But they did not march; they staggered."
These eight are among more than 120 girls who have been mutilated in the Sebei region since the "FGM season" kicked off in Sebei in eastern Uganda.
As reported by New Vision, according to Alfred Ayebwa, the LC1 chairman for Kapkorosia village, over 50 girls were mutilated in Kabei and Kortuk sub-counties, 20 in Chesower sub-county, and 34 in Chekwasta sub-county. Another 16 were mutilated in Suam sub-county.
Bukwo vice-chairman John Chelangat said the mutilation was done between midnight and two in the morning, behind closed doors.
"This is due to fear of the new law that calls for the ban on FGM and gives harsh penalties to anybody participating in FGM or withholds any information about it," he said.
Critics blame what they contend have been failures to build support for the new law, to conduct effective public education campaigns on the consequences of female genital mutilation, and to enlist support for social change within the communities in question. And while FGM persists in part because women are effectively seen as property, the women who do the cutting also depend on it for income, further increasing resistance to ending the practice.
A New Vision editorial, for example, argued that "FGM is still treasured by the Sabiny as a cultural practice [and] [n]o one should think that enacting a law against FGM would be enough to stamp it out. A lot more is required, mostly in sensitising the masses about the evils of circumcising girls."
"[P]rotracted sensitisation, backed by supportive social structures like easy accessibility to schools, mass media and factors of production, is needed in Bukwo, Kween and Kapchorwa urgently. UNFPA accessed funding for this but has concentrated most of its work outside the region."
New Vision reports on the limited reach of international funding and support for campaigns to eradicate FGM:
The United Nations allocated about $300,000 (about sh600m) for FGM activities but, to-date, people on the ground report no sensitisation activities.
The national gender officer for the UN Fund for Population Activities, Brenda Malinga, said some of the money has been used at the national level to get the law working and the rest was supposed to be disbursed to the districts in November for sensitisation about the law.
She says last year, focus was mainly on enactment and enforcement of legislation against FGM.
"We have been supporting training on community dialogue for FGM abandonment in Amudat, Bukwo and Kapchorwa. We also simplified the new law for them."
But when Saturday Vision visited FGM districts, no impact was seen. And the FGM season started in July 2010.
Women who make their living by circumcising girls complained that "FGM activists promised them compensation for income lost but up to now, nothing has been done."
"We shall continue cutting girls because this is where we get our income. They have also not sensitized us and we do not know what is in the law," said Sunday Kokop, the surgeon in Suam-sub-county.
Changing deeply ingrained cultural practices like FGM is not easy, though it has been successfully tackled in other places.
In Uganda, rural poverty is a barrier to change.
The lack of sensitisation about the law can be blamed on factors like lack of a radio especially in Bukwo district to carry the message, low levels of education and high levels of poverty.
Alex Cherop, 34, of Chesimat village in Kortek sub-county, said nobody has ever told them to abandon FGM. They hear about a campaign in Kapchorwa but do not know how it fits in their culture and customs.
The police are also unable to enforce the law because they do not have vehicles or other resources needed to patrol rural areas.
"We lack transport and most of the places are vast and hilly for us to reach," said Bukwo district Police chief, James Wamwenyerere.
Moreover, it is difficult to get victims to help prosecute cases. Becasue of fear of social censure or violence against them, women and girls who have been mutilated often will not speak out in identifying those involved.
And then there is the curious approach of arresting the victims themselves. Police told New Vision about a case in which they arrested four girls who had undergone FGM and five of their parents. But, according to the district police chief, "they refused to name the people who mutilated them. They told the magistrate that they mutilated themselves."
But this is also an issue of pure discrimination of women exacerbated by politics. District leaders have expressed concerns about campaigning against FGM because they are afraid they may lose their personal political power.
"Local leaders are reluctant to swing into action because... they may lose votes," reports New Vision.
Still, there is hope that this episode will catalyze more concrete action. In response to the mass mutilation event among the Sabiny, and perhaps due to international publicity, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni earlier this week promised to build boarding schools in the region to act as safe havens for girls seeking refuge from being mutilated.
"We are going to build boarding schools so that we protect our children from these local surgeons," Museveni told the cheering crowds at Kween district headquarters.
He described the practice as backward and ungodly.
"How can you oppose God? God wired human beings the way he wanted them to be. You cannot be more clever than God to change his creation," he said.
The President also urged the surgeons to form an association so that he could help them find an alternative source of income. These suggestions have been on the boards for some time. Last year, the equal opportunities committee of Uganda's Parliament asked the Government to build model schools, where vulnerable girls will be kept during school days and holidays, until they are of age to resist the practice.
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice