NEW VISION, Kampala, 7 August 2002.

New Challenges in Female Genital Mutilation Fight

Gerald Businge

Female circumcision is an economic activity and trained surgeons are doing it for money.

Betty Cheptoek, 18, stands supported by crutches as people listen to her experience with female genital mutilation (FGM). Despite her disability, her parents could not spare her 'the horror of the knife.'

Cheptoek is from the Sabiny tribe in Eastern Uganda, which circumcises young girls as tradition. Cheptoek had just started her S.1 when her father started pestering her to get ready for circumcision. Betty had made it clear that she was not going to get circumcised at any cost. She had watched the painful process and learnt about the dangers resulting from the act.

When she returned home for the second term holiday, she was shocked to find everything ready for her circumcision. Two cows, three goats, two bags of millet and maize were ready to 'grace' the ceremony:

"When I saw this, I went crying to my mother. I asked her how I could possibly handle FGM with my disability. I asked her to help me with some money so that I could run away from home," Cheptoek says.

She ran to friends and relatives, from one home to another, fleeing every time it was discovered she is avoiding FGM. This affected her education, until she was introduced to the USA-Uganda Godparents Association (USA-UGPA). She is among the 50 students being sponsored by the association after they escaped FGM. But there are thousands of young girls who are not able to run away from FGM.

"We have more than 200 young girls applying to leave there homes and be catered for by USA-UGPA," says Erinah Rutangye, the project co-ordinator. FGM is a cultural practice among many tribes in Africa, despite many years of campaigns against it. Most campaigns centre on the health hazards of FGM, yet it is a serious human rights violation against women and children, as participants agreed at the recently concluded Women's World Congress at Makerere University.

"Health complications come after the act. We have to tackle the act as a human rights abuse," says Margaret Katono, a Ugandan participant on the topic of gendering young voices.

There are further complications in the campaign against FGM as the practice is taking on new forms. Prof. Ahmed of the Sudanese Network for the Abolition of FGM practice says some gynaecologists in Sudan have started an open campaign for what they are calling 'Sharia Circumcision.'

"That's why we formed the network to address the issue within a framework of children's and women's human rights as recognised by the international conventions," Ahmed says.

Dr. Amna Hassan from Sudan says 89% of women in Sudan are infibulated (circumcised) despite years of vigorous campaigns. She calls for increased awareness and concerted community mobilisation to stop FGM.

But she herself knows how mobilising against FGM can be disastrous: "At one time as I addressed people on the topic, stones were being thrown at me through the window. In another place after the address, an old man walked toward me as if he liked what I had told them, raised his club and hit my head hard. We have to get our communities to understand and accept that this campaign is for the good of the girls," Dr. Hassan says.

Ali Chiku, from the Nyaturu tribe in Singida Region, Tanzania, where FGM is practiced, stresses the importance of involving parents in understanding the hazards of FGM to stop them from circumcising their daughters.

She says while anti-FGM campaigns have centred successfully on convincing young girls against giving in to the circumcision as required by custom, pro-FGM traditional die-hards have devised means of beating the method.

"We have found that parents who leant about these campaigns in schools start circumcising infants from 0-2 years," says Chiku. "Educating young ones alone does not help if their parents are left behind," she emphasises. Increasingly, anti FGM campaigners are being hit with the realisation that they are touching the root of traditional entertainment and 'cherished' community ceremonies that some societies don't want to let go.

To many such society members, especially elders, abolishing FGM is abolishing cause for cultural festivity and robbing parents of a chance to be honoured. That may explain why some societies want to cling on to the practice.

In Uganda, USA-UGPA identified the strength of the above and they have designed projects as compensation and discourage parents against the vice.

"We have realised people want to party, drink, eat and give presents at these ceremonies. Now we are giving presents to mothers who agree not to circumcise their daughters. We started off with a heifer and goats project. It is working, but we need more support," says Mrs. Balidawa, a participant and member of USA-UGPA.

On the political front, some leaders have been noted as less committed to active campaigns against FGM. Dr. Hassan says: "Most government officials do not genuinely support the cause. Because it attacks their political bases."

Jane Francis Kuka agrees with Dr. Hassan. Kuka, a former Ugandan minister, says campaigning against FGM affected her political career: "My opponents use it as a weapon against me. Elders were saying who is this woman to interfere with our culture," she says. In the last elections, Kuka lost.

All this would not have been hard to deal with if it wasn't for the new FGM-related practices. In a bid to lessen the dangers of FGM without antagonising culture, milder forms of the practice have been noted.

In Tanzania, according to a PANOS, May 2002 story, in an effort to lessen the dangers of FGM in Mara Region, SACHITA, an NGO started a method of cutting off the clitoris "or slicing off the tip of the organ" nicknamed CCM style (Chama Cha Mapinduzi). This is in an attempt to make the practice modern and because it is difficult to make people completely give up the practice.

"Though less invasive, CCM too can cause scarring and childbirth complications," Dr. Juma Kakomanga of Tarime District Hospital told PANOS. But activists say what matters is not the new name of FGM, but what it entails.

(File prepared 20 November 2002)