Young girls in an ethnic group in Uganda have undergone genital cutting for generations. An NGO is working to end the practice and empower girls.
Esther Chebet recalls pain “deep inside the brain” when her genitals were cut.
Every winter of even-numbered years, her tribe, the Sabiny of Uganda, gather for a ceremony: the cutting season.
For this rite of passage to womanhood, girls are lined up on the ground, surrounded by a crowd. Their clitorises and labia are cut off and their vaginas sewed almost shut, without anesthesia.
After two months of healing, the newly cut girl usually gets married. A man chooses a bride based on her bravery during the operation.
This is female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C).
Female genital mutilation is a human rights violation.
More than 125 million girls and women have been cut in the 29 countries in Africa and the Middle East where the practice is concentrated.
FGM/C has been recognized globally as a human rights violation. Most countries where it is practiced have banned it.
Still, it persists: the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 30 million girls could be cut over the next decade if nothing changes.
Longstanding cultural, religious and social factors underpin the practice in some communities.
Social status, respect for ancestors, pressure to conform, deep-seated beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behavior, cultural ideals of femininity and modesty: efforts to curb the practice need to take into account a complex variety of causes.
An outsider might find FGM/C difficult to understand. But for the Sabiny people, it is a tradition that for generations has bound them together.
Genital mutilation can damage a girl’s health.
Esther Chebet bears a scar on her arm that proves she was cut, and so made “pure” and eligible for marriage. In the Sabiny tribe, only cut women can hold certain jobs and enjoy privileges such as attending feasts, collecting water or having an honorable burial.
A cut woman feels intense pain during sexual penetration, which the Sabiny believe prevents adultery.
The Sabiny believe a girl who hasn’t been cut remains a child her whole life.
After being cut, Chebet said, “you are now a woman of Sabiny, and you are ready to get married, and you are going to be respected.”
Although the Sabiny tribe of approximately 230,000 has practiced FGM/C for the entire length of its oral history, it is carried out by a small minority in Uganda. It is most widespread in Somalia, Guinea, Djibouti and Egypt, where more than nine out of 10 females have been cut. Most females are cut before the age of 15.
The procedure provides no health benefit and can be dangerous. The cutters — usually midwives or traditional birth attendants — often do not wash the razors from one girl to the next, which can cause infections, HIV and tetanus.
FGM/C can produce severe bleeding, infertility and labor complications.
Sabiny cutters ask for 20,000 Ugandan shillings (about 5 euros) per girl. One season’s earnings can provide two years of financial support for a cutter, who enjoys respect from the tribe.
Patricia Cheptoyek is 24. She avoided being cut and has become an advocate against FGM/C.
When speaking to families and congregations, she notes how her husband loves and respects her although she has not been cut. She points out that FGM/C can endanger a girl’s health and facilitates sexual abuse.
“Rape is common in the night, during the girls’ preparation,” Cheptoyek said.
In 2010, Uganda’s parliament made FGM/C a criminal offense, punishable by time in prison.
That same year, Delmark Mangusho, a Sabiny leader working with the U.S. non-profit Life Together International, created the Christian Sabiny Stop FGM (CSSF) project, which leverages Christian teaching in the fight against cutting.
“We empower the Sabiny girls so they are able to speak against FGM on their own,” Mangusho said.
CSSF supervises 25 groups of 15 girls using activities such as tailoring, baking, marathons and biblical teaching to promote gender equality.
“We’ve been lied to!”
Patti Ricotta, head of the Life Together International NGO, first noticed how Christianity could help combat FGM/C at a conference in 2007. There she cited the Bible’s book of Genesis, which says God created male and female “in his own image.”
Past campaigns to end FGM/C, led by Western organizations, had difficulty convincing the Sabiny to change. Emphasizing why FGM/C is wrong according to the Bible has encouraged the Sabiny to act, Ricotta said.
Ricotta recalls the words of one Sabiny: “If God made women equal to men, maybe that means God doesn’t want us cutting our girls.”
Still, superstitions survive. Many Sabiny think that if one sees cutting tools, they will go mad.
So whenever Ricotta hosts a meeting, she shows photos of the tools. “They realize they’re not going mad and tell me, ‘We’ve been lied to!'”