“Fear of the upcoming knife”: Toward Ending Mutilation in Uganda

On April 14, 2022, in Kampala, I’ll have the great pleasure of seeing Hilda Twongyeirwe again, co-editor with Violet Barungi of UnCUT/VOICES’ book, Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (2015). An expanded version with new contributions to FemRite’s collection called Beyond the Dance, Taboo is, in the words of Professor Joy C Kwesiga, Vice Chancellor of Kabale University, “part case study and part literary art [whose] down-to earth approach demystifies … [the] subject by representing the points of view of both victims and ‘executors'” (from the back cover).

The introduction by Rebecca Salonen (below) offers an edifying glimpse into the inspiration that led Mary Karooro Okurut, founder of FemRite and former cabinet minister (in the office of the Prime Minister), to pen an autobiographical novel devoted entirely to the excision theme. Her explicit aim? To end the ‘torture’.

Mary Karooro Okurut. The Switch. Kampala: FemRite, 2016.

The Switch is a thriller. Its Foreword by UNFPA Country Representative Esperance Fundira reminds us that “story-telling is a powerful tool … to mobilize citizens against … injustice,” (3) and FGM counts as a profound violation of human rights. A kidnapping opens the tale: Daisy, the beloved only child of Chelimo, the Minister of Culture, is seized, not for ransom, but to be excised by force in a gesture of revenge and hubris. Her captor claims leadership of a society to maintain cultural cohesion by opposing governmental efforts to stop the cutting in Kapchorwa. On learning of her daughter’s capture, the Minister grows wild with anxiety but also resolve that her offspring be spared the travails excision had visited on her, and while the search is on, Chelimo takes stock of biological facts and psychological challenges. Among her misfortunes due to the knife are a still-born child, vesico-vaginal fistula, excruciating pain of intercourse, and a broken marriage to an upright man who only gradually finds his wife’s handicaps more than he can bear.

From FemRite’s Facebook page. Accessed 7 April 2022.

Rebecca’s Salonen’s ‘Introduction’ to Taboo describes the real-life model for the heroine, Chelimo.

Rebecca Salonen, Introduction to Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation

Even if you are involved in international female genital mutilation activism, you probably have not heard much about FGM in Uganda. Among the 28 African countries where female ‘circumcision’ is performed, Uganda stands near the bottom of the FGM-prevalence list, around 5 % or less. This does not mean that female genital mutilation in Uganda is not a problem, but only that the Pokot, Tepeth, and Sabiny (Sebei), out of Uganda’s 50-plus indigenous ethnic groups, practice FGM. These three groups live in remote and seasonally inaccessible regions on the eastern border with Kenya, where there are few casual visitors. Until recently, FGM was the lot of every girl in these societies, however, and the type of excision was very severe. Depending on the inspiration, ability, or eyesight of the circumciser, all of the external genitals are traditionally cut away. Most other Ugandans are horrified by the practice, and Parliament enacted the Prohibition of FGM act in 2010, so the public ‘circumcision’ ceremonies are disappearing, and the cutting is now being done secretly, in the dark.

I learned about female genital mutilation in Uganda almost by accident. In 1998, while I was visiting Kampala, a friend introduced me to Hon. Jane Frances Kuka, a Sabiny who was then Minister of Gender. She had famously escaped being circumcised by staying in school. When her opposition to the practice became too troublesome, in 1988 the elders bought rope and planned to tie her up and mutilate her by force. She escaped to Kampala and returned by helicopter with the Minister for Women, who suggested the elders give up compulsory FGM. Later, Hon. Kuka was elected to the women’s seat for Kapchorwa in Parliament.

Hon. Kuka invited me to visit her home town of Kapchorwa during the 1998 ‘circumcision’ season to attend Culture Day, a festival created by Uganda’s Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (REACH) project which had been launched in 1996 by the United Nations Population Fund to combat female genital mutilation. In 1998, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, arrived by helicopter at the mountaintop town. Standing in the bed of a truck, he delivered a speech to the thousands of Sabiny people gathered at the Boma Grounds for Culture Day, urging them to abandon their fiercely defended practice of female ‘circumcision’. Others spoke as well, including leading elders, some of whom stood in front of the president and, to our surprise but apparently not to the president’s, announced their determination to continue their traditional practices. Later that evening, visitors and Kapchorwa dignitaries gathered at a celebration dinner. After listening to some congratulatory speeches, a community leader rose. Looking squarely at the visitors, he said forcefully that the Sabiny did not need anyone from New York or London to come to Kapchorwa and tell them what to do about female ‘circumcision’.

That night, locked into our compound near Sipi, we lay awake in our beds hearing the sounds of ‘circumcision’ in the darkness: Feet marching on the roads, bells and whistles, singing and drumming that lasted all night long. At breakfast the next morning, as we looked out at the magnificent Sipi Falls plunging into the chasm below our lodge, our hosts told us how many girls had been cut at dawn. We wondered if any had died. The same ceremonies would continue for weeks, long after we had returned to our safe homes in the West. There was nothing we could have done. We were the people from New York and London whose views were irrelevant.

After returning home, a few of us formed the Godparents Association. We raised the funds to pay school fees for Sabiny girls (later also for Pokot girls, who are also at risk for ‘circumcision’) to help them stay in school and avoid being cut, as Hon. Kuka had done. Over the years, we have sponsored hundreds of girls in secondary schools, and a number have completed university studies and master’s degrees. All of them have avoided FGM, defied cultural expectations, and taken new paths in life that do not require them to be cut. These are the young women who will help to transform their culture.

The book you are reading is a collection of the stories of girls and women who have firsthand knowledge about female ‘circumcision’ in Kapchorwa and elsewhere. Each story is valuable because it is authentic and unique. Although FGM is no longer the secret that once seemed unbelievable to people in the West, there are many hidden aspects that underlie the persistence of the practice. Some of these are revealed by the women who speak in these pages – witchcraft, coercion, intoxication. Unlike the young women we have sponsored, most of whom have hair-raising tales about escaping forced ‘circumcision’, many of the women in these pages (and even the circumcisers) did not have a choice and were forced into FGM.

We do not know exactly how many Ugandan women have suffered female genital mutilation or how many hundreds of girls are being cut every year. No census taker goes door to door in the mountains or pursues the migrating Pokot pastoralists to count the ‘circumcised’ women in their households. Eventually, once the aid funding is exhausted and the papers are written, the people from New York and London always go home. But the Sabiny will remain on Mt. Elgon, coping with the divisions and differences among them since their ancient practice became of interest to outsiders. Only they can stop female genital mutilation on the mountain.

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