The damaged women of Africa

Men should not bear all the blame for the shameful tradition of female genital mutilation, argues Donu Kogbara
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The Independent Online
I have just returned from making a TV documentary in Kapchorwa District - a part of Uganda that is populated by the Sabiny tribe, which still practises female genital mutilation (some people prefer less emotive and condemnatory descriptions such as "female genital cutting" and "female circumcision"). As an African myself, but Westernised, and a feminist, I did not want to make a film that merely attacked the Sabinys for being misogynous "savages".

Yes, there are unprogressive elements, but I had heard that some Sabiny girls and parents were refusing to submit to genital mutilation. And I wanted to focus on these pioneers who are rejecting a practice that not only causes enormous pain, but can also lead to infection, incontinence, permanent disability, infertility, childbirth complications and death.

Kapchorwa is a remote and largely unmodernised, sensationally beautiful, mountainous region near Uganda's border with Kenya. The film crew and I arrived during the "circumcision season" - which takes place every two years, in December.

I hope that we succeeded in making a fairly positive film that did not obsessively dwell on "bad" Sabinys who stubbornly cling to ancient and harmful traditions. But I cannot forget or forgive them. While the Sabiny progressives inspired hope and joy, they were a minority. My trip to Kapchorwa was a harrowing experience.

Girls - aged 13 to 18 - were held down in village clearings while their clitorises were sliced off, with razors and without anaesthetic. The atmosphere was festive - much drinking, cheerful chanting and merry dancing accompanied this macabre public circus. And the girls, though stoically silent during and after the operation, were clearly in agony and shock. Blood trickled down their legs. They could barely walk.

I wondered how many of them would be dead or crippled by Easter. It is hard to believe that this butchery is still condoned in most African countries. Three months on, I still wake up in the middle of the night, tearful and incandescent with rage.

What angers me most is the active involvement of women. Female genital mutilation is often blamed on male chauvinism and patriarchal social values. And it is true that far too many African men will not marry an uncircumcised woman.

It is also true that female genital mutilation originates in a male desire to control female sexuality, to eliminate the female libido, to punish women and to enhance male sexual pleasure (some women undergo infibulation, a radical form of mutilation which leaves them with tiny vaginal openings).

So, yes, let's blame the men for being bastards. But what about the women who eagerly collude in their own violation? The "surgeon" in Kapchorwa - a woman - gleefully informed me that mutilation is good for women, and that she never mutilates anyone who doesn't want to be mutilated. Many of the mutilated mothers, grannies, big sisters and aunts of her most recent victims wholeheartedly agreed with her claims.

The 116,000-strong Sabinys comprise only 5 per cent of the Ugandan population. And the male-dominated Ugandan government does not approve of female genital mutilation. But its exhortations are dismissed or resented by most Sabiny females. Indeed, when Ugandan TV screened a programme about the disadvantages of mutilation, they rebelled, instead of welcoming an excuse to escape the knife. That year, a record number of Sabiny women requested mutilation.

According to a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) document: "In the early Nineties, attempts to enforce compliance with international health and human rights norms created a backlash. Local (Sabiny) women who had evaded the custom embraced the blade as an act of resistance to cultural interference."

Female genital mutilation is unconditionally denounced by some African women, such as Efua Dorkenoo and Ramat Mohammed, a Ghanaian and a Nigerian who run Forward, an ill-resourced but dynamic lobbying group based in London. But in Sierra Leone (one of many examples), women's secret societies enthusiastically endorse mutilation. Members of these societies perform the operation and aggressively threaten those who oppose it.

An estimated 6,000 girls are mutilated every day in Africa, and an estimated 120 million living women have undergone some form of genital mutilation. But when I complain about these horrifying statistics, it is often women who tell me to shut up. Women from Somalia and Sudan (where 90 per cent are mutilated) have told me to mind my own business whenever I venture to suggest that female genital mutilation is sado-masochistic, shameful, unnecessary and incompatible with the late-20th century.

In the UK, 13,000 British-born children whose parents hail from Africa are at risk from mutilation. Frequently, it is their mothers who insist that they go back to Africa in the school holidays to be mutilated.

Meanwhile, there are men who are either uncompromising opponents of the practice - or simply not as committed to it as some women. Sometimes it is men who look sheepish when I rant about the evils of mutilation, and it is fathers who logically assess the "benefits" and decide that their daughters should be spared.

Sometimes it is men who firmly echo my view that there is an urgent need for action. Jackson Chekweko runs Reach, an anti-mutilation initiative in Kapchorwa sponsored by the UNFPA. Chekweko, a Sabiny graduate, uses gentle persuasion and education as tools. He does not lose his temper or opt for a "you backward natives" approach.

Nevertheless, this mild-mannered man does regard mutilation as barbaric; and he seemed much more upset about it than any of the local women I interviewed. Even those Sabiny women who swore that they'd never be willingly mutilated were less obviously furious about the practice than Chekweko.

I do not want to give the false impression that men like Chekweko are commonplace. Nor do I want to undermine the extremely valuable input of the many women of all races who have fought a good fight against female genital mutilation. Female genital mutilation is probably actively opposed by more women than men.

But why should any woman support it? I will, no doubt, be accused of attacking victims who don't know any better. But I'm sick of the view that African women are brainless children who can't be criticised for passionately embracing oppression and possible death.

The film can be seen in the `Correspondent' slot on BBC2, at 6.55 tonight.