Mbale — Female circumcision, often referred to as female genital mutilation, affects an estimated 92 million girls in Africa aged 10 and above. In Uganda, the practice was officially banned in 2009 but it is still practiced in rural areas by groups such as the Sabiny in the east of the country.
Amina Ibrahim, aged 73, works for the Kapchorwa town council in the Sebei sub-region of Mount Elgon, eastern Uganda. But she used to earn a living as a local surgeon carrying out female genital mutilation (FGM).
Rite of passage
For thirty years Amino performed this cultural practice on girls around the age of 15. She was paid roughly 8 euros per operation. Although the practice is commonly viewed as a violation of human rights, for certain tribes in Africa such as the Maasai and the Sabiny, the act of cutting off a woman's clitoris is seen as a necessary rite of passage as it marks a young girl's transition into womanhood.
"I was performing this ritual on girls as a cultural obligation but also to earn a living because I would operate on over 50 girls a day and the income I earned was enough to sustain me," Amina recalls with fond memories.
"Now that the government has passed a law banning this cultural practice, they (local surgeons) should be assisted to find an alternative source of income," says Amina who was at home with her fellow FGM local surgeon Zaina Cherotich. The duo used to work together.
But 52 year old mother of six, Judith Yapmangusho, has been confined to a wheel chair after suffering reproductive health complications as a result of FGM.
"I am now a physically disabled person incapable of doing any manual work to support my poverty stricken family that survives on subsistence farming in the hilly region," Yapmangusho says.
The story of Yapmangusho is just one of several untold stories of women who have suffered silently because of the stigma associated with FGM.
For generations, Sabiny men have encouraged FGM based on the belief that a married woman who undergoes genital mutilation has a reduced libido and would therefore remain loyal to her husband if he leaves home for long periods in search of work.
It was common among Sabiny men to shun marrying uncircumcised. Similarly, elders never allowed girls who weren't circumstanced to collect food from the granary due to their low status in the community.
Sarah Kamuron a secondary school student is full of praise for the law banning FGM. She explains how it has empowered her to shun the cultural practice which creates reproductive health complications for women especially during child birth.
"Parents with strong cultural beliefs have been forcing their daughters to undergo FGM in total violation of the child's rights. But now the law against FGM is a timely intervention," Kamuron who is volunteering to be a peer educator added.
Beatrice Chelangat who has been head of the Reproductive Educative and Community Health programme (REACH) since 1996 says a high level illiteracy among the community members has been one of the major factors contributing to the practice of harmful cultural practices like FGM. She also fears that in rural areas, the practise will go underground if communities do not receive education about the risks of FGM.
"We have now embarked on outreach programmes in schools and communities especially in the rural areas. Thanks to the support of the Dutch Embassy, a Frequency Modulation radio station is also opening soon in Bukwo district along the Uganda-Kenya border, to help sensitise people about the law on FGM and other reproductive health issues," Chelangat said.
From a medical perspective, FGM is not only painful but also extremely traumatic as it may cause excessive bleeding and risks exposing the girl to the deadly Human Immune Virus (HIV), infertility, physical disability and even death.