If Viola Chebet could turn back the hands of time on one event in her life, the 28-year-old mother of three knows exactly where she would go.
The day she was “circumcised” in order to conform to the cultural demands of her Sabiny community in Bukwo district. That day came seven years ago, by which time she had already delivered two of her children. According to Chebet, that day changed the way she felt and viewed sex.
“I no longer miss a man sexually,” she says. “I don’t think about sex since sex [starts in] the head.”
Chebet is just one of about 80 per cent of married women in the Sebei sub-region whose genitals have been cut in a dehumanising practice known as female genital mutilation (FGM).
“I hate it,” she says of female circumcision. “It hurts. I hate it.”
FGM is a procedure that causes the victim to take little if any pleasure in sexual intercourse; and many report a familiar problem in the bedroom: ‘katit ngat’ — a word that translates to English as ‘frigidity’ in bed.
My trip to Sebei came at a time when the world was commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child under the theme ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ in a fight to accelerate the abandonment of FGM.
The trip also coincided with the start of the circumcision (locally known as “wonsetap koruk”) season in the Sebei districts of Kapchorwa, Bukwo and Kween, which happens towards the end of every even year.
Other communities that practice FGM in Uganda are in the districts of Nakapiripirit, Moroto and Amudat in north-eastern Uganda where the Sabiny, Pokot, Tepeth and Kadam people live.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies FGM into four primary types, each of which can have different effects on survivors’ sexual reproductive health and comfort.
These include clitoridectomy, which is at least partial removal of the clitoris plus removal of the labia minora; and infibulation, which involves narrowing the vaginal opening by cutting and repositioning the labia (sometimes by stitching) with or without removing the clitoris.
Others involve any harmful treatment of the female genital area, including but not limited to, piercing, incising or cauterizing. We found Chebet in Kapsarur town hall in central Bukwo district, where a group of women had gathered to talk about their post-FGM sexual experiences.
“So, what’s the solution to frigidity?” asks one woman. “Pretend,” one voice calls out bullishly, before another adds: “What’s gone is gone.”
The gathering was part of a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) reproductive health project, which focuses on educating Sabiny women about the adverse effects of FGM.
The major effect, according to Ruth Kisa, a health worker at Talepa health centre II in Bukwo town, is that most circumcised women do not enjoy intimate relations with their spouses.
Kisa says some women who have undergone FGM report that they feel a lot of pain during intercourse and others simply find sex boring or mildly unpleasant.
Henry Ekea, 23, who says he has had a chance of sexual intercourse with both circumcised and uncircumcised women, says he has had problems trying to enjoy sex with the former due to their frigidity.
CULTURAL, GENERATIONAL CLASHES
FGM in Sabiny sub-region is a long-standing cultural practice, which continues for reasons that vary from place to place and heritage to heritage. The main intention in the past was to enforce fidelity and chastity among women. It was also believed to be a rite of passage into womanhood.
According to Amos Kiprop, 64, the practice is generally tied to beliefs about acceptable sexual behaviour. He says it was meant to deter promiscuity and strip women of erotic desire or, potentially, enjoyment.
Kiprop says a woman who is not cut is not recognised as a woman but as a girl, even if she got married. Such a woman would be forbidden from certain community functions such as accompanying her husband to public functions, gathering grain from a granary, picking cow dung from a father-in-law’s kraal and denied leadership positions.
However, teenagers including Joyce Aromorach, 19, from Mokoyoni Secondary School in Bukwo, see things differently, especially after “facing the knife”.
Aromorach says she was nine years old when she went to stay with her grandmother in Chesimat sub-country for the school holidays.
On the third night of her stay, her grandmother took her to an elderly woman in a forest, who removed her clothes, lay her down and spread her legs. Despite Aromorach’s fear, the grandmother assured her that it was going to be fine as she was attaining her womanhood. An old woman brought out a razor blade and started cutting out pieces of her private parts.
“I shouted in pain but grandma held me firmly,” she says.
Aromorach says those are tears she still feels so intensely in her heart and she will never forgive, let alone visit, her grandmother again. At school, Aromorach is now part of the anti-FGM clubs formed to sensitise young girls. The clubs conduct anti-FGM lessons once a week.
Despite both Uganda and Kenya making advances towards the elimination of FGM with national laws, the cross-border dynamics remain a challenge. Many girls are still taken across the border to Kenya or Uganda for FGM, making total elimination of the practice in the largely-under developed region difficult.
Hotspots where the brutish practice still flourishes include among the Kalenjin East African peoples who are closely related across the borders. They include the Kipsigis, Nandi, Keiyo, Tugen, Marakwet, Endo, Sabaot, Terik, and Okiek, who form one branch of the highland Nilotes or southern Nilo-hamites.
The Kalenjin live mainly in the highlands of western Kenya, although their cousins the Sabiny and some Pokot are located in eastern Uganda. According to the 2014 Uganda Demographic and Health Survey (UDHS), FGM prevalence in Uganda was at 1.4 per cent nationally, up from one per cent in 2006.
The practice reduced among the Sabiny from 2.4 per cent in 2006 to 2.3 per cent in 2011. However, the practice increased among the Pokot from 1.8 per cent in 2006 to 4.8 per cent in 2011 (UDHS 2006 to 2011).
“Although the national percentage seems low, the practice is highest in practicing communities, that is, 50 per cent among Sabiny and Tepeth; and 95 per cent among Pokot and Kadam,” says the report.
In 2010, FGM became a crime when Parliament passed the Anti FGM Act. However, there is a significant lack of awareness about the practice within frontline professions such as teachers, social workers and police, who are usually responsible for protecting children from harm.
Solomon Munyo Mutai, a world athletics bronze medallist, says lack of political will by the local leaders has crippled efforts by law enforcers to fight the vice.
“Sabiny region and culture is a patriarchal society. Nothing a woman does makes sense, even to the political class. There is need for change to save our future generations,” he observes.
The 22-year-old, who participated in the August 2016 Olympics in Brazil, was in Bukwo for the anti-FGM marathon to raise awareness. The officer in charge of UNFPA in Uganda, Dr Eric Dairo Akinyele, says there is persistent need to highlight the harmful health implications of FGM to parents and traditional leaders in communities where it is practiced.
Dr Akinyele said girls who do not undergo FGM grow up to be healthy women and no less female than girls who undergo FGM. He said sensitising locals about such issues would go a long way in changing the mindset of communities that still practice FGM.
UNFPA has outlined specific targets for its sensitisation campaign. They include marshalling inter-faith and cross-border efforts for elimination of FGM, encouraging the Sabiny and Pokot people in the six districts of Uganda and the Sabaot, Kalenjin, Kuria and Pokot communities in western Kenya to abandon FGM.