New Vision (Kampala)

3 December 2010

Uganda: 120 Sabiny Girls Circumcised

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!"

People stood on hills; others climbed trees and some pitched camp on roof tops of huts to catch a glimpse of the ritual.

A white lady in the crowd was so shaken, she said later that she wished she could have saved the girl from the severe pain and embarrassment.

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.

Yet, when Saturday Vision interviewed her, she said she was happy and excited. But her facial muscles reflected the pain buried inside her, away from society. "I am happy I have become a woman by being circumcised. I will be able to do what other cut women do. I will now be able to climb into the granary or milk cows, which I was not allowed to do till now," Alice Chemutai said.

She had a blanket wrapped around her waist.

Eight girls cut with two knives

Then seven other girls - one by one, wrapped in dirty blankets and strewn all over a compound hosting two huts, were circumcised. 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.

The eight are part of over 120 girls who have been mutilated in Sebei region since the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) season kicked off in Sebei in eastern Uganda.

According to information compiled by local authorities, the girls hail from the districts of Bukwo and Kween. Kapchorwa district has not registered any case.

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

No sensitisation about the new law

The Government passed a law prohibiting FGM in December 2009 but nobody in the FGM areas seems to care.

According to Chelangat, no sensitisation has been done to educate the people about the new law because there are no funds to do it.

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 usually do the cutting are complaining 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. According to the law, aggravated FGM gets life imprisonment.

This is when death occurs or where the victim is disabled or is infected with HIV. It is also aggravated FGM where the offender is a parent, guardian or person with control over the victim, or where the act is done by a health worker.

Others who engage in FGM shall be imprisoned for a period not exceeding 10 years.

The problem

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.

According to the Sabiny, a girl is circumcised to initiate her into adulthood. The clitoris is cut out to interfere with a woman's arousal process.

Saturday Vision established that over 220 girls were mutilated in Amudat district between July and September this year. According to the LC5 chief of Amudat, Pauline Isura, the girls were mutilated in the remote sub-counties of Loro and Karitek, on the Uganda-Kenya border, which is difficult to reach.

"We do not have logistics to facilitate us to reach there. There were also some girls who crossed to their kin in Pokot north in Kenya to get mutilated," Isura adds.

Why is there no action taken against perpetrators?

Local leaders are reluctant to swing into action because, according to Chelangat, they may lose votes.

The police are also unable to arrest the culprits because, according to the Bukwo district Police chief, James Wamwenyerere, they do not have transport.

"We lack transport and most of the places are vast and hilly for us to reach."

The Police chief said he had the names and location of the girls who were to be mutilated on December 2, but they did nothing due to lack of transport.

The DPC, however, says they have managed to arrest about four girls who were mutilated in Chesower sub-county and five of their parents. They are in custody.

But recently, when they arrested three girls in Binyinya, Kween district over FGM, court acquitted them because the girls refused to name the people who mutilated them. They told the magistrate that they mutilated themselves.

When the local surgeon, who had been arrested by police was paraded in court for identification, the girls said they did not know her. The case was dismissed.

However, Beatrice Chelangat, the executive director of the Reproductive Educative and Community Health Project, says investigations are going on.

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