Date: Sat, 25 Jul 98 15:36:16 CDT
A Uganda Tribe Fights Genital Cutting
By Barbara Crossette, 15 July 1998
UNITED NATIONS, July 15 -- For the Sabiny people of eastern Uganda, 1998 is a circumcision year--as are all even years--when girls as well as boys would normally be expected to endure a painful rite of passage to young adulthood.
But not this time, said G. W. Cheborian, chairman of the Sabiny Elders Association, a council of clan leaders. While young men of 14 to about 22 will still take part in elaborate circumcision ceremonies in December to mark their entry into manhood, for many if not most girls and young women, there will be no genital cutting.
In the last few years the Sabiny (pronounced sa-BEAN) people have waged a campaign to abolish female genital mutilation and replace it with a symbolic ritual declaring the girl a woman without maiming her for life, Mr. Cherborian said in an interview.
Last week, Mr. Cheborian received the 1998 United Nations Population Award for the work that the Sabiny elders have done in their remote mountainous Kapchorwa region of Uganda.
His association shares it with Dr. Hugh Hastings Wynter of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, a leader in family planning in the Caribbean. The award is judged by an international panel.
The Sabiny Elders--after first converting themselves from proponents to opponents of female genital cutting--attracted the attention of health and population experts by finding their own way to deal with a practice that is widely condemned by women's groups and passionately defended by traditionalists in Africa, where it is most prevalent.
The elders' campaign is being studied by other Africans as an example of how to deal with a culturally sensitive taboo within a traditional society.
Mr. Cheborian, who describes himself as "about 71," said that even among the Sabiny--130,000 people, according to Uganda's last census in 1991--there were still those who clung to the tradition.
"But most of our children are educated now," he said. "The girls say, 'Father, this time I am not going to go along with your idea.'"
A decade ago the Sabiny, a collection of rural clans engaged in small-scale farming, were committed enough to the practice of genital cutting that they made it a requirement. That put them into conflict with the Ugandan Government, which discourages the practice. The tension only increased Sabiny tenacity on the subject, Ugandans say.
Then in 1992, Sabiny chiefs formed the Elders Association and began a systematic review of their traditions.
"The main reason was to identify those which are values for retaining, improve those which required improvement, so that they are consistent with modern life," Mr. Cheborian said, speaking in English. He said that those values that were no longer acceptable were singled out to be "discarded or abandoned."
From the beginning, he said, the focus was on the genital cutting of girls. But the elders met resistance and did not have the necessary resources to wage an effective grassroots campaign. A few years ago the United Nations Population Fund stepped in with some support.
"We started in 1996, and we have been very active on the ground for about two years now," Mr. Cheborian said. By the end of that year, "it appeared that we had reduced the circumcision of girls by 36 percent," he added.
In 1997, a year that was studied because the practice was not always limited to even years on girls, there were no reported incidents. But most of the cases involving girls take place in even years, the same as for boys.
"What we have done is to tell parents about the harmful parts of circumcising females," Mr. Cheborian said. "This included the pain, the very serious bleeding and fainting because of the bleeding. Because of the open cuts, there is a risk of H.I.F.-AIDS affecting the person.
"We told them that when that part which is cut forms a scar, that reduces the opening of the passage, so later when a mother wants to deliver, she finds a lot of labor problems. Sometimes it calls for a doctor to operate. At times it delays a child to be delivered out, and they die. Some children are born with their heads in not quite good shape, and they remain very dull and cannot make improvement in learning."
Fathers and mothers alike "have come to understand that it is harmful," he said. "Fathers are now on our side."
The Sabiny Elders Association has many other plans for enhancing their people's cultural traditions, Mr. Cheborian said.
"Other aims are to write the Saginy language so that schoolchildren could be taught in that language and people could read some issues in the local language," he said. The language still does not have a written form and is in danger of extinction. Another aim "Is to try as much as possible to research the local herbs, the local medicine, to see if some can be more useful."
The association has introduced some welfare programs, agricultural improvement campaigns and drives to educate people about AIDS and H.I.V., the virus that causes it. The $25,000 prize that Mr. Cheborian took home will help these projects.
Before the award ceremony, he said he had some advice for others in Africa who have defended the tradition of female genital mutilation. "I think the message I should give them is that those societies which are having female circumcision--we now call it female genital cutting--should also know that female genital cutting is harmful," he said. "Those are the facts that cannot change. Doctors know that.
"Those societies which are still seeing circumcision should come forward and be faithful to their children, not endanger them, not put them into hardship. Cutting someone's body is a serious problem"