KAMAPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)--Earlier this month a member of Uganda's parliament introduced a bill to criminalize female genital mutilation, a traditional coming-of-age practice of cutting off all or part of a girl's clitoris. Though relatively rare in Uganda, the mutilation is still practiced by two ethnic communities in the eastern part of the country.
Chris Baryomunsi, a doctor elected to Parliament three years ago, says he has gained overwhelming support so far from male and female legislators throughout the country for the bill, receiving endorsements from members of many different backgrounds.
A key backer is the Parliament's deputy speaker Rebecca Kadaga, who has dedicated 2009 as the year to end female genital mutilation, also known as FGM, in Uganda.
Rukia Nadama, the state minister for gender and cultural affairs, has also endorsed the bill. She is working with leaders of the Sabiny and Pokot communities--where the majority of these rites are carried out--to educate them about the health risks associated with the cuttings, such as high rates of maternal and child mortality during childbirth, HIV transmission and the potential for these mutilations to cause fatal bleeding.
Baryomunsi expects the bill to win the two-thirds support needed for its passage and for it to become law by September or October of this year.
The Ugandan government launched an anti-FGM awareness campaign with the United Nations Population Fund in the mid-1990s, which used billboards, radio and school curricula to disseminate information about the practice.
But the country did not outlaw the practice.
"We haven't received any resistance so far or had anyone portray this in a negative light," said Baryomunsi in a recent interview with Women's eNews. "I am aware that if you don't do adequate mobilization it might go underground and people might do it in dark corners. But we'll intensify our education campaigns in the communities."
Although female mutilation appeared to be on the decline in Uganda, there was a sharp spike in 2008--among the Sabiny community in particular--that alarmed medical groups and women's advocates.
The Sabiny community performs the mutilations in December during even-number years. Its practice is among the most extreme, involving the removal of the entire labia.
Sharp Increase in 2008
Last December, 500 young women in the community were put through the mutilation, a sharp increase from 90 women in 2006.
The Pokot, a pastoral community in northeastern Uganda and western Kenya that straddle the two country's borders, also perform mutilations. In initiation rituals, they practice infibulation, in which most or all of the external genitalia is removed and the vaginal opening is stitched up, leaving a small opening for urine and menstrual blood.
Although the origin of the practice is unknown, some cultural historians, Baryomunsi says, have linked it to the community's hunting culture. This theory holds that the Sabiny community wanted to prevent women from experiencing sexual pleasure to inhibit infidelity during hunting expeditions. The practice eventually developed as a way to initiate girls into womanhood.
"In December, I felt such pain and sadness that women, some unwillingly and others willingly, were subjected to crude methods of having their bodies cut when there is no medical benefit," said Baryomunsi. "I've talked to women who are maimed and crippled because of FGM. As a leader and member of parliament, I wanted to do something to stop the abuse of women's human rights in Uganda."
The bill would make it illegal to perform genital mutilations on girls.
Traditional practitioners could be imprisoned for up to 10 years.
The bill imposes harsher penalties on medical doctors and parents. If either attempts a mutilation, they could face prison sentences as high as 15 years. If a girl dies during the procedure, the surgeon administering it could be imprisoned for life. The bill also says that the consent of the girl or young woman will not be a valid defense in court, given the health risks of the practice.
Baryomunsi hopes the bill will offer financial and cultural support to women who currently work as surgeons for the Sabiny and Pokot communities during the season when these mutilations occur.
The surgeons, traditionally elderly women who help perform the initiation rites, make between $25 and $50 per mutilation and rely on the ritual for their livelihoods.
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Baryomunsi plans to coordinate with the Ugandan government to set up alternative livelihood programs for the former surgeons.
Rebecca Harshbarger is a reporter based in Kampala, Uganda.