By Ryan Lenora Brown
“In many parts of the Kween District of eastern Uganda, women are divided into two distinct categories ‘There are the uncircumcised and the circumcised.’ That division is not merely physical, but has social and economic consequences as well. Circumcised women – those who have undergone a process known within the international human rights community as female genital mutilation, or FGM – are allowed to collect corn for their families from the local granary. Uncircumcised women are not. Circumcised women can milk cows. Uncircumcised women cannot. The practice has deep roots across large swaths of Africa and the Middle East, where it is millenniums old, but traditions are not unmoving – and neither are views on FGM. And as governments and NGOs mark the 11th annual Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation today, experts say there is reason to believe the practice is waning in many of the 29 countries where it is widespread.
Efforts to end FGM have long been complicated by colonialism and its aftereffects, which left many Middle Eastern and African societies sensitive to interference in their cultural affairs. But experts say that FGM eradication has been successful in building momentum as a global human rights campaign precisely because it is rarely driven by outsiders. What’s more, in rural districts of Uganda where the practice is commonplace, it comes knotted to cultural and economic norms that cannot be done away with by legislation alone. Women who perform the procedure, for instance, earn up to 80,000 Ugandan shillings ($30) per girl in a country with an average yearly income of about $300. ‘You can see why it would be difficult to ask them to leave the only income generating activity they know,’ says Onyema Afulukwe, a legal adviser on Africa at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York. ‘Despite the laws, the government hasn’t made nearly enough effort to sensitize and raise awareness about why this practice must end.’ And without educational programs, she says, communities will continue to practice FGM because the social stigma of not doing so asserts a stronger pull than the force of the law.”