Unpacking Uganda’s Diverse Culture: Understanding Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)


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Nestled in the heart of Africa, Uganda boasts a rich and diverse cultural heritage. With over 50 languages spoken and numerous ethnic groups, the country’s cultural landscape is vibrant and complex. However, amidst this cultural richness, there exists a practice that has sparked controversy and concern: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

FGM is a traditional practice that involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. It is also known as female genital cutting (FGC) or female circumcision. FGM is typically performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 14, and it is often carried out by traditional practitioners or family members. There are several types of FGM, including clitoridectomy, which is the removal of the clitoris; excision, which is the removal of the clitoris and labia minora; infibulation, which is the removal of the clitoris, labia minora, and labia majora; and stitching of the vulva to narrow the vaginal opening.

According to available data from 30 countries where FGM is practiced in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa and some countries in the Middle East and Asia, more than 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to the practice, with more than 3 million girls estimated to be at risk of FGM annually. FGM is therefore of global concern.

However, in Uganda, FGM is a deeply ingrained tradition in several communities, particularly among the Sebei, Sabiny, Pokot, and Tepeth. It is often performed as a rite of passage, marking a girl’s transition to womanhood. The practice is believed to ensure chastity, modesty, and cleanliness, as well as increase a girl’s marriageability. In some cultures, FGM is seen as a sign of beauty, femininity, and community identity.

Amos Chemtai, a social worker from Serere district, said that there are misconceptions about hygiene and cleanliness, where some communities believe that FGM promotes cleanliness and hygiene, although this is not supported by medical evidence.

“How can FGM help with the hygiene and cleanliness of a girl? I do not see any facts there. Those parts cut have nothing to do with cleanliness,” Chemtai said.

FGM is often seen as a way to control women’s sexuality, promote modesty, and maintain family honour, which, according to Kassifa Cheptoek, was done for men’s selfish interests.

“There is nothing positive about FGM. This thing called FGM was done for selfish motives by men. Culturally, we were nomads and hunters. So men could go for some time before coming home. So the only way to reduce women’s feelings was to remove the clitoris so as to keep your wife intact,” Cheptoek said.

“There was research that was done after a man married a girl who had undergone FGM. She was sexually different from the ones from Bugisu. Men would always go to Bugisu and marry girls, and they felt they were the best. But they did not know that, for them, they had deformed their own girls, and these ones had all their vaginal parts. So to me, I compound it that it was just selfishness and primitivity,” she added.

Cheptoek added that, though there is nothing good about the practice, it is a way of preserving tradition and heritage. FGM has been practiced for generations, and many communities see it as an important part of their cultural identity and heritage, though there are other ways of identifying themselves.

“The only positive thing is the identification of culture and heritage, which is negative. We have better things to use to sell ourselves as a community,” she adds.

Culturally and socially, FGM is seen as a rite of passage, a transition from girlhood to womanhood, and a way to prepare girls for marriage and motherhood, though some people argue that it was done in order to make girls get married at an early age.

FGM is a complex issue, deeply rooted in Uganda’s cultural fabric. While it is important to respect cultural diversity, it is equally crucial to prioritise human rights and well-being. By understanding the cultural context and addressing the underlying factors perpetuating FGM, there is a need to work towards a future where girls and women are free from harm and can thrive with dignity.

Uganda’s diverse culture can be unpacked with sensitivity and respect while advocating for the eradication of harmful practices like FGM.

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