By Michael Aboneka
For the past few weeks, I have been engaged in debates over some practices that we have ignored as society and yetare harmful especially to children. The conversations raised a lot of dust as this subject touches many hearts as many think it is an attack on their tribes and customs. But if we must progress as a civilized society, we must transcend beyond tribal, cultural and religious sentiments to discussing real issues. Female genital mutilation (FGM) was once a “beautiful” cultural practice until society discovered that it was dangerous to the life of a woman and as such, it is now an offence under theProhibition of Female Genital Mutilation Act, 2010. In the same vain, rolling of girls over a cliff because they were pregnant was also outlawed because it was repugnant to the Constitution as it undermined one’s right to life. It is within the same ambit that we should discuss the forceful and harmful circumcision for boys and elongation of the labia minora (“pulling”) for girls as it has turned out to be as equally harmful just as the FGM.The Constitution under Article 2sets the standard for every cultural practice and that if any such practice or norm is inconsistent with any provision of the Constitution, the Constitution takes precedence and that other practice norm, and custom is void.The Children Actfurther underSection 6makes it unlawful to subject a child to social or customary practices that are harmful to their health.
How circumcision can be harmful and unlawful
I grew up in various parts of this country and lived in various communities that practiced circumcision. The idea of circumcision is that it is a path from childhood to adulthood and usually this is done before puberty. Much as many celebrate this tradition and have actually gone ahead to use it as a tool for tourism, there are loopholes that need to be addressed as follows:
- Forceful circumcision violates the right to respect of human dignity and protection from inhuman treatment
I have witnessed three scenarios of men of age being chased in a certain taxi park and the scenes were dramatic. When I inquired about the chase, I was informed that they had“skipped” circumcision while they were boys and that it is mandatory for every boy to be circumcised and that their custom allows forceful circumcision of those that skipped it. Indeed, the men were caught and subjected to public stripping, scornful cheers, spitting of“malwa”(local brew) in their faces and a forceful circumcision was conducted and they were left humiliated, bleeding and helpless. I was astonished and trembling in fear and wondered why this custom should be permitted to this level. These acts offend the dignity and humanity of a person and as such should be condemned to that extent. Culture cannot transcend over a constitutional right!
- Exposure of harmful practice to boys
The Children Act makes it unlawful for anyone to subject children to harmful practices. In my early years, I witnessed my schoolmates in P.5 undergo a forceful and painful circumcision. They were subjected to trek several kilometers of hot tarmac dancing, carrying heavy regalia, having “malwa” spat on them and men wielding huge sticks were always there to ensure they didn’t escape. This was traumatizing for a child of Primary 5 (who was 10 years of age). To make the matters worse, they would threaten the boys that should they cowardice, they would be beaten to death and also bring shame to their household and as such, they continued to undergo the callous practices in the name of respecting elders. On the day of circumcision, usually Saturday afternoon, a man with anold un-sterilizedknife appeared, cut the skin for the first time, ran away, and came back for the second cut and then the last. Meanwhile, the boy was being treated to a concoction of water and red pepper which was used to wash off the blood gushing out of his genital area using a dried maize cob. Imagine the scrub of the bleeding penis with a dried maize cob and pepper water to a 10 year boy! This again was traumatizing for me! Meanwhile, several boys took long to heal as sometimes the chief “circumciser”did not do a proper job and in the end, the boys cold not come back to class because they were still nursing their wounds which sometimes went septic! All the above scenarios are unlawful as they expose the child to physical pain, psychological and physiological torture and even have a toll on their education. How different is the above process from FGM? No one should be forced to circumcision and if one elects to undergo this ceremony, they should be given an option to do it in the hospital with proper medical procedures.
Forceful and harmful pulling for girls
Another issue that society has shied away from discussing and dealing with is the forceful and harmful“pulling”(elongation of the labia minora) for girls before they attain the “sex-engaging age!” This practice is mandatory for girls as a rite of passage that identifies membership of the tribe and it is still common especially within Buganda despite its physical health and psychological and physiological risks. The pain that the girls undergo is unbearable as the pulling is done several times and not once. The pulling has also had psychological side effects where the girls that have not done it because of the pain have continuously received threatens and harassments from their aunties indicating that they are not“women enough”and that they will never have a good marriage. Further, to this day, several grown up women still have their aunties demand that they undergo“pulling”and this has continued to torture them and destabilize their relationships. These acts of subjecting to the girls to forceful and painful “pulling”is archaic and unlawful and if it should happen, it should be at one’s will.
Michael Aboneka is a partner at Thomas & Michael Advocates