A woman’s experience at the thorns of cultureBy BRENDA BANURA | Wednesday, July 11 2012 at 10:53
At nine years of age, a few young girls might be experiencing puberty. But the majority are probably not. They are playing with dolls, making new friends and studying in primary four, if they are lucky. About that same age, young girls are picking out hobbies they enjoy and beginning to discover who they really are. But when she was nine, Maria Chepokilipa was preparing to have her clitoris cut.
Chepokilipa belongs to the Pokot tribe of Uganda. She stays in Amudat District in Karamoja, 20 kilometres away from the border of Kenya and Uganda. She is polite and shy; her eyes are focused on the ground most of the time.
When she walks, it is with small, quick and firm steps, determined to get where ever she is going. It says a lot about her character. Beneath that though, is a woman who has undergone pain so cruel, she sometimes wonders whether she will ever forget it.
It all started 28 years ago when she turned nine. It was the period between June to September. There was a buzz among the young girls of the region. It was the time to “be made a woman”, a time to prove themselves strong and courageous, a time to get married.
Tradition has it among the Pokot that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is carried out when girls are aged between nine and 12 years and as soon as they are healed, they are married off.
Although many of her peers were talking about undergoing the knife, Chepokilipa thought it was still too early for them. “I told some we should wait till we have grown a little older but no one listened to me,” she recalls.
In the end, fear of being the odd man out and being teased made her tell her parents that she was ready. But nine years is rather young and even her father could see that. He told her she should wait a little longer but she insisted she was ready.
He then warned her that she would be married off if she got it done but even that did not make her change her mind.
Besides, it was the order of the day - as soon as a girl was circumcised, she was married off to a man much older. The girl’s age was just a number, it did not matter.
Chepokilipa says, “When I told my mother, she told me I needed to be very strong because it was the most painful experience in the world. But not even that prepared me for the pain I felt that day.”
And so, an appointment was made with a circumciser commonly known as a cutter.
To perform FGM, the cutter is invited to the girl’s home and the girl is asked to go up the hill with a stone on which she sits with her head held up high and legs spread wide for the cutter to circumcise her. There are usually at least eight girls circumcised on any given day during the season.
When each of the girls is seated on her respective stone, the cutter, who is always a female that has also undergone FGM, begins her job. Using a curved knife, the girls are circumcised, one by one.
The circumciser cuts off the clitoris as if she is scooping it off. Thereafter, she moves to the next girl and does the same using the same knife. And after this horrific duty, the circumciser is given a cow for every girl she circumcises.
Chepokilipa was circumcised on the same day as three of her sisters and four friends from the neighbourhood and, needless to say, it was a terribly painful experience.
“It is worse than labour pains because it is continuous. Every time you urinate, it feels like you have been cut afresh. It felt like my private parts had been set ablaze. I cried silently so that people wouldn’t say I was a coward. What I really wanted to do was scream out loud. There was no one to soothe me or comfort me, I had to be strong. To date, when I close my eyes, I can still feel the pain I felt then.” And to think this was only the beginning of a painful womanhood.
FGM is a ritual to initiate a girl into womanhood. On the day it is done, a cow and goat are killed to celebrate.
The girl is given herbs for two days and is also washed with water. There after, breast milk from breastfeeding mothers is smeared on the wound. This, is all for the purpose of stopping the bleeding. But nothing is administered to reduce the pain.
Chepokilipa says one takes about two months to heal and during that time, you cannot walk or sit properly. She therefore stayed home lying on a mat and tried not to drink a lot so that she wouldn’t have to urinate and reawaken the pain.
“I regretted having undergone FGM. If I was nine during this era, when I don’t have to be circumcised, I wouldn’t have allowed to be cut. I wish all the girls in the world would not have to be circumcised especially since it is pointless and comes with no benefits,” she says.
“As soon as I healed, I was married off to a man and he already had one wife. He was about 10 years younger than my father and now has four wives.” As Chepokilipa found out, her marriage came with experiences both painful and horrific. It is difficult to write about them without sounding gross.
With tears in her eyes she narrates, “When my husband tried to sleep with me, he found I was too small. It is one of the things female circumcision does to a woman. So he reported me to my co-wife. The following day, together with my brother-in-law’s wives and my co-wife, my legs were spread and a cow horn was inserted to enlarge me. I got torn so a new wound was created.”
Chepokilipa adds, “That night as my husband had sexual intercourse with me, I cried throughout. The horn had created a wound and he kept on making it worse. It is the worst experience I have been through.”
And when the time came to give birth, she got complications. The passage was too small for the baby to come through. Chepokilipa was cut using a pair of scissors to create more space.
She is now 37 years old and has seven children, four boys and three girls. but to this day, the memories of all that FGM has done to her are still fresh. These are things she does not want her daughters to go through. It is why she takes participation in Pokot culture day celebration, a day that is held at the time when the FGM season in Pokot begins.
On this day, harmful cultural practices like FGM, early and forced marriages are condemned while the beneficial ones are upheld.
Chepokilipa was also pleased when a law was passed against FGM. “I will also make sure my daughters are not circumcised. They don’t need to experience that pain,” she says.
Fighting FGM at the Pokot cultural day celebration
The assumption is that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Uganda, is a practice by the Sebei people. Rarely are people in the Karamoja region thought of. But the Pokot, Tepeth and Kadama ethnic group, whose people occupy Amudat, Nakapiripirit and Moroto Districts of the Karamoja region, do practice FGM.
In fact, Cecile Campaore, the representative of United Nations Population Fund (Unfpa), a sponsor of the anti-FGM campaign says, “Official statistics indicate that the practice is done by less than one per cent of the population. In Pokot, the practice is at 95 per cent while it has gone among the Sabiny to about 50 per cent.”
It is with such an understanding that a Pokot Culture Day celebration was started. The aim is to criticise and discourage harmful practices like FGM which lead to forced and early marriages among girls.
Peter Lokar Yeyer, a resident of the area says a story is told that once upon a time, men from Pokot went to raid cattle and left one man in the village to look after the women. On coming back, they were shocked to find all the women pregnant. During an elders’ meeting, it was agreed that women’s private parts need to be tamed to reduce their urge for sex. And thus, the beginning of the FGM practice.
June 30 marked the fourth Pokot Day celebration held at Pokot Senior Secondary School in Amudat District. It was organised by Pokot Zonal Integrated Development Programme (Pozidep). Pozidep is a development arm of Church of Uganda in Karamoja region involved in various activities such as hiv awareness and human rights sensitisation.
On that day, the law against FGM is also reemphasised to scare people from the act. Sensitisation is also carried out to show the dangers of FGM like complications during childbirth. During the event, seven former circumcisers (commonly known as cutters) surrendered their knives to the French Embassy representative.
This year, 72 girls run away from forced marriages and the knife, and enrolled in school. Among them is 14-year-old Esther Narech who was circumcised and married off. “I was married for one month before I run away. I am still in pain but what comforts me is that I am now at school and from what the teachers say, my future should be brighter.”
Narech has enrolled in primary one. Her prayer is that her three younger sisters are not circumcised as well. She says she has told them about how painful the experience is. The good news is that they are all in school which, reduces their chances of being circumcised.
The Amudat RDC, Stephen Bewayo Nsubuga, says Kalas Girls Primary School and Kalas Boys Primary School have been gazetted as rescue centres for girls that run away from parents that want them to be circumcised and forced into marriage. The boys’ school is for boys that run away from parents that don’t want to take them to school. The children will stay at the schools during the holiday as well.
But the anti-FGM strugglefaces challenges. Some parents try to take back the run-away children while others let go of them. Implementation of the law against FGM is also poor. The other challenge is that some girls are taken to Kenya, which is 20 kilometres away, to be circumcised.
The anti-FGM campaign in Karamoja region is being sponsored by UNFPA, Unicef, Zoa, TPO, Vision Care, Dan Church Aid, Diakonia, Pozidep, French Embassy and Ministry of Gender and Culture. With a high FGM rate in Karamoja, the struggle against the practice still has a long way to go.
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