The Damaged Women of Africa

By Kogbara, Donu | The Independent (London, England), March 1, 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Damaged Women of Africa


Kogbara, Donu, The Independent (London, England)


I have just returned from making a TV documentary in Kapchorwa District - a part of Uganda that is populated by the Sabiny tribe, which still practises female genital mutilation (some people prefer less emotive and condemnatory descriptions such as "female genital cutting" and "female circumcision"). As an African myself, but Westernised, and a feminist, I did not want to make a film that merely attacked the Sabinys for being misogynous "savages".

Yes, there are unprogressive elements, but I had heard that some Sabiny girls and parents were refusing to submit to genital mutilation. And I wanted to focus on these pioneers who are rejecting a practice that not only causes enormous pain, but can also lead to infection, incontinence, permanent disability, infertility, childbirth complications and death.

Kapchorwa is a remote and largely unmodernised, sensationally beautiful, mountainous region near Uganda's border with Kenya. The film crew and I arrived during the "circumcision season" - which takes place every two years, in December. I hope that we succeeded in making a fairly positive film that did not obsessively dwell on "bad" Sabinys who stubbornly cling to ancient and harmful traditions. But I cannot forget or forgive them. While the Sabiny progressives inspired hope and joy, they were a minority. My trip to Kapchorwa was a harrowing experience. Girls - aged 13 to 18 - were held down in village clearings while their clitorises were sliced off, with razors and without anaesthetic. The atmosphere was festive - much drinking, cheerful chanting and merry dancing accompanied this macabre public circus. And the girls, though stoically silent during and after the operation, were clearly in agony and shock. Blood trickled down their legs. They could barely walk. I wondered how many of them would be dead or crippled by Easter. It is hard to believe that this butchery is still condoned in most African countries. Three months on, I still wake up in the middle of the night, tearful and incandescent with rage. What angers me most is the active involvement of women. Female genital mutilation is often blamed on male chauvinism and patriarchal social values. And it is true that far too many African men will not marry an uncircumcised woman. It is also true that female genital mutilation originates in a male desire to control female sexuality, to eliminate the female libido, to punish women and to enhance male sexual pleasure (some women undergo infibulation, a radical form of mutilation which leaves them with tiny vaginal openings). So, yes, let's blame the men for being bastards. But what about the women who eagerly collude in their own violation? The "surgeon" in Kapchorwa - a woman - gleefully informed me that mutilation is good for women, and that she never mutilates anyone who doesn't want to be mutilated. Many of the mutilated mothers, grannies, big sisters and aunts of her most recent victims wholeheartedly agreed with her claims. The 116,000-strong Sabinys comprise only 5 per cent of the Ugandan population. And the male-dominated Ugandan government does not approve of female genital mutilation. But its exhortations are dismissed or resented by most Sabiny females. Indeed, when Ugandan TV screened a programme about the disadvantages of mutilation, they rebelled, instead of welcoming an excuse to escape the knife.

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