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Uganda: Sebei Lose Battle Against Female Circumcision

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They swear that the whole tribe would rather go to prison than abolish a custom they inherited from their ancestors.

The practice, commonly referred to as female circumcision, is mostly practiced among the Sabiny, who occupy Bukwo and Kapchorwa districts on the northern slopes of Mt Elgon. The United Nations categorises it as female genital mutilation (FGM) because it damages a woman’s sexuality and leads to various complications. FGM refers to the removal of the external female genitalia.

Accordingly, last December parliament passed a law banning female circumcision. President Yoweri Museveni signed it into law on March 17, 2010 and it took effect on April 9, 2010.

The law argues that FGM infringes on the rights of the woman and also leads to health hazards, including excessive bleeding, death, birth complications and exposure to illnesses. The law criminalises the practice, calls for prosecution of offenders and protection of victims. Anyone caught doing it faces 10 years in jail or life imprisonment if the victim dies.

In Kapchorwa district, cases of female genital mutilation have reduced because of the sensitisation programmes undertaken by the Reproductive, Educative and Community Health project (REACH), and the introduction of a law against the practice.

Kiprotich says because of the campaigns against the practice, the Sebei are looking for alternative ways of doing it unnoticed.

“In the past, girls used to dance in the open for days. But since the campaigns against the practice, they dance at night, one day before the circumcision,” he says.

“The girls are cut as early as 5:00am and taken to a secret location to heal before the authorities realise.”

Why it is hard to eradicate the practice Seated on a bench next to a hut with her legs spread wide and covered with a bed sheet was 16-year-old Benna Sunday who had just undergone the ‘operation’.

“I am now a woman. In our culture, a woman is worthless if she is not circumcised. Uncircumcised women are prohibited from doing certain community activities,” Sunday says.

Sylvia Cheptoek, 17, adds: “Uncircumcised women are neither allowed to milk a cow nor climb into the family granary. The elders say such a woman is still a girl and immature to face them.”

Moses Angurwa, 78, says: “Circumcised women have less sexual pleasure and endure when their husbands go away from home for long, thus they keep the home safely. However, uncircumcised women are unfaithful and may cheat on their husbands.”

Angurwa adds: “I hear educated women do not want to undergo FGM. But women in our culture must undergo the ritual, lest they risk not getting married.

Both Sunday and Cheptoek have been promoted to P7, but they say they may leave school soon to get married.

“I am now ready for marriage. I will continue with school, but if a rich man offers dowry for my father, I will marry him,” Cheptoek says.

“School is not that important. I have seen many people getting degrees, but have no jobs and their lives are not that good.”

Listening to the people of Sebei, I was convinced that FGM is deep-rooted in their culture. So it will take serious sensitisation programmes, education of the girls and provision of alternative sources of livelihood to the ‘surgeons’ to get rid of the practice.

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