Genital Mutilation

Ugandan Physician-Lawmaker Moves to Criminalize FGM

Sunday, May 31, 2009

After 500 young women in Uganda endured genital mutilations in the most recent season for the initiation rite, a physician lawmaker here is optimistic about outlawing the practice this year and finding new income for traditional surgeons.

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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.

Ugandan MP Chris Baryomunsi outlaws FGM

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.

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