Snapshot on genital female mutilation in East Africa

A woman displays the tools used in FGM. COURTESY PHOTO

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a barbaric and archaic practice carried out by many tribes in East Africa and other parts of the continent.

It is primarily a cultural practice although some African religions include it as a part of their initiation rites. According to the affected tribes, girls will only mature into women after undergoing the procedure. This means that it is compulsory and important to undergo the exercise.

Last year, a Japanese researcher, Dr Mari Okumura, conducted research on the practice in a number of villages in East Africa. In her findings, she established that the prevalence rate of FGM in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda is on the high. She also learned that the decision by young girls to get circumcised is usually made by their parents and communities, and in just a few cases, the girls themselves. Elders in these communities often attend trainings on the negative impact of FGM, but once they walk out, they get back to the practice.

While in Migori, Kenya, the researcher observed public ceremonies where communities celebrated the FGM season when hundreds of girls were circumcised. She witnessed groups of armed men going door-to-door harassing families of uncircumcised girls. The girls were being paraded openly on the streets, wearing the celebration hats as community members sang and danced in celebration.

“I have watched more than 300 girls undergo FGM in the past week alone,” she shared. “Ceremonies started secretly, with some girls being taken in the wee hours of the day, but when they realised that no action was being taken to stop them, it turned into a public event,” she added. In Tanzania, every woman or girl that escaped cutting was hunted down and ‘cut by force.’ In Nyamwanga village, she interviewed Mr Joseph Kyomo Marwa, one of the villagers and a strong believer in the practice. Mr Kyomo revealed that every woman, no matter the age, must undergo cutting with or without consent.

“If it so happens that a woman dies without undergoing circumcision, her body has to undergo it before it is buried,” Mr Kyomo shared. When asked about his daughter, Jilly, who vanished to escape the procedure, Mr Kyomo openly stated that “Yes, we will not get tired of searching for her, day and night.

We will one day catch her and bring her back. We’d rather find her dead than her continuing to bring shame to my family and our society. She cannot continue to be called my daughter if she remains uncircumcised. Let her know that there is no room for a dirty and uncircumcised woman in my heart, in my family, in my tradition and in my tribe.”

In Karamoja sub-region in Uganda, Dr Okumura was horrified to meet a 20-year-old Emojong Ngimong, who was begging her mother to have her circumcised.

“All my friends have had it done and I don’t want to be the odd one out,” she pleaded!

“I am isolated at school, at the playground, and in groups. No man in this society will marry me.”

Emojong had just arrived from Kampala where she had long been living with her aunt hence dodging the cutting. Her mother, Maria Ngimong, a mother of six, is now buying time as she waits for this year’s session to honour her daughter’s request. Dr Okumura noted that some women die as they undergo the practice because of the unhygienic measures used in performing it. However, many others survive and make ‘good wives and mothers’.

Governments of the countries in the region have, however, taken steps to curb the practice such as passing laws criminalising it. A growing number of other African countries, where FGM is done have also in the past outlawed the practice.

To be exact, 16 out of the 28 African countries that practice female genital mutilation have introduced specific legislations to ban it either by statute, decree or in their constitution.

While these laws are in place, it has been a tough call completely banning FGM in these societies even with the intervention of government. Most of the leaders and law enforcers have the practice ingrained deeply in their cultures that they are ineffective at enforcing the laws in place. It is, therefore, going to take a lot of time and work changing the mindsets of people who still believe in, and glorify the practice.

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