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Soon you may go to prison for modifying women’s body parts

By Rukia Makuma

On November 3, 2009, government announced a plan that will criminalise Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a cultural practice among the Sabiny of Kapchorwa and Bukwo districts, and a few communities in Moroto and Nakapiripirit districts. FGM involves partial or total removal of a womans external genitalia without medical recommendation or for non-therapeutic reasons.

There are four various types of FGM. There is Clitoridecty  which involves the removal of the clitoral hood with part or all of it; Excision  which involves the removal of the clitoris together with part or all of the labia minora with or without the excision of the labia majora; Infibulations  which involves the removal of external genitalia, stitching or narrowing the vagina leaving only a small hole for menstrual blood and urine. There is also the unclassified, which involves pricking, piercing, stretching, and pulling of the clitoris.

FGM is performed for different reasons, some of them psychosexual. These include the need to maintain chastity, virginity before marriage and to combat infidelity in marriage since those circumcised lose their sexually sensitive or arousal parts to the knife. Its also partly to increase mens pleasure (in cases of pulling the genitalia).

It is also performed for hygiene and aesthetic reasons. Some people consider the vagina to be dirty and unsightly. Thats why they circumcise the women in the belief to maintain cleanliness. But in the end, the practice survives because it is seen as a cultural or religious heritage.

The practice is believed to have originated from ancient Egypt. It is a multi-cultural practice that predates Islam and Christianity. Its more prevalent in Africa. However there have been cases of FGM in the Middle East countries such as Egypt, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. It has also been reported in Malaysia, Europe, US, and New Zealand mainly among immigrants.

About 24% of the circumcisions are performed using the razor blade while 76% involve knives. Of the circumcised girls 86% seek medical treatment, 7% use traditional herbs while the remaining 7% seek both medical and traditional treatment. It is estimated that between 100 and140 million girls have undergone FGM and three million girls are at a risk of being mutilated every year. In Uganda, 500 girls undergo the practice every year.

There has been wide outcry and condemnation by diverse women and human rights activists against FGM which they say is injurious to womens dignity and freedom. However all past attempts at stopping the practice have come to nothing.

The current plan to criminalise perpetrators of FGM announced by Minister for Gender and Cultural Affairs, Rukia Nakadama, therefore seeks to take the fight to another level. Nakadama said the government is committed to outdoing cultures that demean women and violate their rights guaranteed under the national constitution.

A bill which will be tabled before Parliament later this month lists various forms of punishment for people who engage in FGM. They include people who participate in any events prior to the FGM ceremony or procure, aid and abet the practice including guardians and parents of the circumcised girls.

Under the new bill, a person who practices FGM is liable to 10 years in jail on conviction. It also provides for a jail term of life imprisonment for a person who causes aggravated FGM on the victim. One who carries out FGM on herself cannot escape punishment either. She faces 10 years in jail.  One who attempts to do it, procures, aids or abets is liable to a custodial sentence of five years. Any person who participates in events leading to FGM will be thrown in the coolers for seven years on conviction while parents or guardians of the circumcised girls will suffer eight years of incarceration.

Dora Byamukama, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, said consent, culture and religion shall not be admissible defence during the trial.

Various organisations like UNICEF, UNFPA have formed a joint programme to support the government on this initiative. However what remains unknown is whether the people who pride themselves in this culture are willing to abandon the practice and join the battle to wipe it out.

In 1988, Jane Frances Kuka, then a Resident District Commissioner in Kapchorwa survived the wrath of the elders because of her opposition to FGM. Under her tutelage, the district had passed a bylaw outlawing the practice. She was whisked away from the claws of death by a helicopter that was provided by government. It might therefore be useful to refer to this incident as a new strategy is designed.

Minister Nakadaama said $30,000 dollars has been provided to fight the practice. The money will be used for funding the formation of a national alliance which will comprise representatives from civil society organisations, government departments, religious institutions, the education and health sectors. This alliance of organisations will be charged with overseeing the elimination of the FGM.

However, for this to succeed, Nakadaama said the masses must be sensitised about the evil effects of the practice since most of the traditional surgeons are engaged in it for financial gain and it has become a source of income to many families.

Criminalising the practice and allocating thousands if not millions of dollars to NGOs without simultaneously educating those who practise FGM might only lead to an increase in underground circumcisions which are carried out at night and in unhealthy environments. There is also the possibility of the girls being transported to neighbouring countries like Kenya and circumcised. How will the government stop this?

Clearly in the long term, government needs to weave a regional approach against the practice else this latest effort might not yield much result, just like many other attempts before.

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