A remarkable success story

Kapchorwa is a tiny town in the remote mountains of Uganda where the Sabiny people live. Isolated by geography, and poverty they are the only people in Uganda to circumcise their women, and they are fiercely protective of their culture. This is an environment in which people believe an uncircumcised woman is not fit to gather grain from a granary, let alone be married. It is against this background that reform programmes have to work.

In 1992 efforts to convince the authorities into outlawing the practice rebounded. A film of gory mass circumcision of girls aimed at promoting reform by shock, outraged instead the local people because of the way their culture was portrayed: barbaric and backward. In 1994, twice as many girls as in 1992 opted for circumcision, a signal of their proud resistance to outside interference. Now, three years later, there is a radical change. Not only have the Sabiny girls chosen to reject the practice, but their right to chose has been sanctioned by the Clan Elders.

This astonishing turnaround has been brought about by a programme known as REACH (Reproductive and Community Health), the brainchild of the country representative of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr.Francois Farah. In a respectful and non-judgmental way the Sabiny people are encouraged to be proud of their culture while questioning the legitimacy of some of its practices. A ritual to mark a girl's passage into womanhood is culturally valid, "genital cutting", is not. The programme is not judgmental and avoids the use of words, such as 'genital mutilation', that may carry an implicit criticism.

The programme points out the many harmful effects of genital cutting. They include excessive bleeding, urine retention or incontinence, infections, the risk of HIV from dirty blades and the formation of scar tissue which can make birth difficult or even impossible. In addition there is the severe debilitating pain and psychological trauma. Even clinical arguments are hard to stand up in an environment in which people believe that an uncircumcised woman is not fit to gather grain from a granary, let alone be married.

Jackson Chekwoke, the REACH project manager watched his sister nearly bleed to death because she was circumcised when pregnant. His mother-in-law is paralysed in both legs as a result of circumcision 20 years ago.

Jackson knows that men are the key to change in a male-dominated-society, and he spends hours among fathers, brothers and decision makers, telling them of the dangers to their sisters, daughters and their wives - and how the practice can inhibit the healthy birth of potential sons. REACH has also armed the teenage girls with significant facts and sends them into their schools to spread the message.

Two sisters, aged 17 and 18, spoke out passionately about the views of adulthood. They both insisted they would only become women when their education was complete. In their eyes genital cutting had nothing to do with achieving maturity. They speak in whispers of two friends of theirs who had been forced by their parents: their legs were tied open and men sat on their chests to hold them down. Because they were struggling , the clitoris was cut savagely and messily. One of the girls is now incontinent.

Meanwhile Farah has worked tirelessly to sway the elders. Mr Cheborion, Chairman of the Elders, admits he once supported the practice but now sees it as abhorrent. "It is essential we modernise and that our culture is not left behind," he says. "Education is the answer. The less ignorant we are , the more this practice will die out."

In fact, it was expected that virtually no girls in the community would choose to undergo the knife at last year's end. But as Farah points out, this is only a pilot project. The practice of genital cutting affects the lives and unborn babies of over 90 million women. "This is only a start" he says. "Let's not forget the women all over the world who continue to suffer this futile and dangerous practice."

Source:  People & the Planet, Vol.6, No1, 1997.