The bill on “Female Genital Mutilation/ cutting” (FMG /C) tabled in the parliament of the Republic of Uganda is one legislation that shouldn’t be supported. The bill criminalises a widely practised and accepted tradition of the practising communities of Uganda.
This practice, which is a way of life of our people and has been sustained from time memorial should not be demonised; cursed in criminal terms and legislated against.It’s not fashionable among the FGM/C practising communities for women to practise “pulling” (elongation) of the clitories.However, this practice is common among the Buganda, though other communities do not accept it as a desirable norm.
In some “civilised” societies, cigarette smoking by women (even during pregnancy) is accepted and considered a fashionable life style. This is inspite of the well known and medically proven cause-effect relationship between cigarette smoking and some deadly ailements. As far as all these issues cited are concerned, there are no bills in place to legislate against them. They are considered Public health issues and adressed as such through public health programmes, designed and tailored to enlighten and educate practising communities of the risks of the practice.
The western culture of surgically remodelleing any part of the body,tougue piercing, eyelid piercing, nose piercing, and skin scarification are not considered self abuse or body mutilation, atleast not by those who practice it.To them, this is simply body beautification. It’s unfortunate that our legislators describe our values, culture and traditons in such insulting terms to enable them make practices illegal. The practising communities call it circumcision, and circumcision it should be. The term “mutililation” used by our legislators has a negative, degrading connotation, which suggests wilful and malicious infliction of injury. The people who practice it are never forced; instead, they highly value and celebrate the practice.
Those opposed to female circumcison should tone down their rhetoric and exaggeration, which is amied at winning cheap sympathy and approval of development partners from the western world. There is a very thin line between an insult and fancifully overstating an issue. Why does parliament consider it shameful for a community to identify with its culture and ancestral practice? When young girls in the name of culture parade their beautiful skin, its termed as “nakedness.” But such derogatory words are wanting when foreign culture forces our women to dress skimply in “bikinis”, minis” and all manner of dress that exposes sacred parts of the female body. One practice is demonised; the other is considered “fashion”. Does any of this make sense?
Female Genital circumcision (FMC-this is the right name) is not a malicious, unruly, dehumanising and brutal act of chopping off young girl’s genitals. It’s a cultural preparatory act that intitiates young girls into adulthood. No sane parent can subject their child to babaric mulilation of any body part. The practising communities believe the female child is precious and circumcising her only increases her value. There is no rule that states that traditional practices are criticism free. With dizzing technology, globalising and all manner of changes taking place in the world today, culture is prone to have shortfalls in the eyes of many.many years back, giving birth to twins was considered an abomination. Todate, there are no records in our law books that show that this culture was done away with by legislation. Sensitization and enlightenment helped to dispell the norms that placed the lives of twins in jeopardy.
When a people’s way of life, beliefs and traditions have unintended adverse effects, legislation simply drives it under, but does not eliminate the practice. Any attempts at changing a people’s culture and way of life must first seek to acquire a good understanding of the practitioners perspectives, win their attention and work towards attitude change. FMC leaves behind a scar like every other surgery. The undesired effects of the practice are better adressed through public health campaign programmes, involving the custodians of the culture. Overtime benefits of a nation wide behaviour change campaign is more effective compared to legislation. Ugandans are capable of making reasonable choices; they do not need the law to understand this. Information empowers people to make the right choices.
To adress this public health concern, cultural and religious leaders in the practsing communities should be engaged and sensitised on the harmful effects of this practise to enable them make good choices voluntarily. There should be open dialoque with recongnition and respect for tradition. Those who choose to keep their tradition should be respected; instead emphasis should be placed on the execution of FGC by trained persons, under sterile conditions and enviroments. Legislators should focus more on winning the support of the custodians of culture, such that cultural values are preserved, while eliminating the harmful means of implimentation. Government should also seek to provide alternative sources of income to the mentors and surgeons.
By Kiprotich George Cheywa
George works with the Africa Leadership Institute-Uganda.