Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) among the Sabiny of eastern Uganda has become a critical issue. In 2010, the government of Uganda outlawed the practice after human rights defenders all over the world and health experts castigated the practice.
But the recent resurrection of the practice has left Ugandans wondering whether this barbaric ritual will ever be trampled. Note that UCU students from the region are not spared by the ritual. The Standard explores the danger of the ritual and its origin:
Patrick Chelogoi, 35, is a teacher in Kween District, the current epicentre of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). In 2009, his first love died following FGM, a shock from which he has never recovered.
Chelogoi says he had been in courtship with his love for two years and was considering marrying her when her parents insisted that she had to undergo the ritual first.
“She didn’t want to get circumcised; her parents forced her and threatened to disown her in case she refused. She agreed and I didn’t see her again. She was circumcised and bled profusely to death,” Chelogoi says.
Chelogoi adds that before she died herbalists gave her herbs which did more harm than good. “She died later that night,” he recounts with teary eyes.
But Chelogoi’s girlfriend has not been the only victim.Hundreds of other women from Sebei region and other parts of the world, who have undergone FGM have had to live with permanent body defects or suffer early death.
In East London, a 37-year-old mother of Ugandan descent, was last week arrested for mutilating her three-year old daughter. For a woman who has lived in such a country, it is even scary to learn that she could be that archaic.
Grace Cheptek a third year student of Law at UCU who is not circumcised asserts that despite the tough cultural values in Sebei land, she intends to emerge on top of them. “I am at school not be like the rest, my legal knowledge will help me challenge FGM and I will choose who to marry,” she said. Among the Sabiny, if you are not circumcised, you can’t marry one of them.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 3 million girls and women worldwide are at risk of undergoing FGM each year. And about 125 million victims are estimated to be living with the consequences. The dangers of this ritual include severe bleeding, problems with passing out urine, infections, infertility and increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths. It is these effects that have prompted the world to fight FGM.
Origin of FGM
The patriarchs of Sebei-land were war-loving people who usually raided the neighbouring tribes most especially those who lived in the lowlands such as Turkana in the modern-day northwestern Kenya for cattle.
The raids lasted for months before the warriors returned home with their loot. The warriors would leave their homes for several months and consequently, their wives would get sexually starved.
Owing to the sexual starvation, the wives of the warriors would sleep around with the men who weren’t warriors. Note that whenever the warriors went for the raid, the non- warriors would remain behind and scheme for women.
This brought conflicts between the families of the warriors and those of the non-warriors. Occasionally, some warriors out of anger would murder their wives or the suspects who slept with them, especially when the warrior’s wife got pregnant. This was a serious problem in the community which forced elders to seek a solution to stop it.
One day, the elders and clan heads held a meeting to try and resolve the problem. It was during the meeting that the clan heads suggested extreme punishments to the perpetrators.
The debate went on about the sorts of punishment that would make weak men and women desist from infidelity but the elders didn’t agree on any single idea.
However, later on after consulting the gods, the chief priest said he had come up with a solution of clipping the female external genitalia that is responsible for their infidelity.
The chief priest said that the gods had instructed him on the procedure of the operation and assured him that it would effectively regulate and stop the problem in question.
The elders and clan heads agreed and a few old ladies were nominated to learn how to carry out the operation. So as soon as that was finished, all the wives of the warriors were summoned for an emergency meeting and taken through the new ritual before they were mutilated.
he women who were not yet mutilated would reject marriage proposals from the warriors or upcoming warriors for fear of being subjected to the ritual.
This again reached the elders and clan heads who immediately resolved that all the women who were still sexually active and those who were about to get married were to undergo female genital mutilation.
All the elders and clan heads unanimously agreed on the matter and this was done. Since then, all girls between the ages of 14 and 17 were obliged to undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) at the same time when boys of the same age bracket were being circumcised.
It became an indispensable custom that has over the years, become cherished and made a necessity. The Pokot in Amudat District, the Nandi and the Masai in Kenya also practice this ritual.
FGM among Sabiny today
Since the beginning of the criminalisation of FGM by the eighth Parliament of Uganda in 2008, the practice went into hiding but it appears that it did not die. It lived among the practitioners and victims.
Despite the punishments associated with performing the ritual, some Sabiny are today more than willing to put their lives on the line than accept the scrapping of their cherished culture.
These are usually the illiterate people in the rural areas who have not received enough sensitisation on the dangers that this practice carries.
They cannot afford to see their culture melt away. Recently in Kween District, FGM resurrected from its hideout when dozens of girls were publicly subjected to the ritual while hundreds of others were circumcised in hiding.
Why FGM is a do-or-die?
According to the Sabiny, a girl who gets married before undergoing FGM is not allowed to pick cow dung from the kraal of her father-in-law. Cow dung was used to smear the floors and walls of grass-thatched huts. This meant that not being allowed to pick cow dung from the kraal meant your hut would look terrible and unattended.
” The uncircumcised girl was not also allowed to collect grain from the family granaries; and she would not escort her husband to public functions, especially circumcision parties.”
All these conditions forced many young girls to succumb to this painful ritual. It’s always a grisly prospect, but considering the alternative of living as an outcast your entire life, many girls opted for it.
For those that are at parallel with the practice, the sense of belonging and pride has eroded with time.
Rebecca Chemutai, a first-year student from Sebei region, says, “It’s a barbaric act. I always have problems answering such questions. It is a custom in our tribe that has made me at times feel ashamed of saying I am a Sabiny. It’s pathetic.”
Frederick Kipsang, a student of Social Work and Social Administration, says, “The practice is shaming.”
Margaret Chelangat, a second-year student of Law, says, “When someone asks me about female genital mutilation, I simply tell them that I am not a Sabiny. It really feels bad to denounce my tribe, but I have to do this sometimes to avoid further questions on that topic. I really pity my fellow girls who have undergone this barbaric practice.”
But one student, who asked to remain anonymous wondered, “Why is it that the media talks of FMG as an entirely Sabiny thing? Why? Culture is culture, like it or hate it.”
Little wonder that is 2010, the government of Uganda criminalised the practice. In the same year, prior to the introduction of FGM ACT 2010, the organization Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda filed a petition in the Constitutional Court seeking declaration that the custom and practice of FGM is inconsistent with the Constitution of Uganda and violates various articles therein, and as such, should be declared unconstitutional. The petition was successful and uncontested.
The sentences prescribed under the Act for a person who performs FGM on conviction now include life imprisonment on conviction for committing aggravated FGM and a 10-year sentence for a person who performs the ritual and is liable on conviction.
The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda (1995) 2 also protects women and their rights under Article 33 and specifically prohibits under 33(6) laws, cultures, customs or traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status. Article 44 further states that no person shall be subjected to any form of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
When this happened,