By HOLLY MILLER
When I travelled to Uganda last year with some of the ActionAid team, we met women from a community in the mountains east of Kampala. On the first day there, we spent several hours chatting with the women about their most intimate experiences.
All the women in the group had been ‘cut’ – the term used in many parts of Uganda to refer to the practise of female genital mutilation (FGM). FGM is the removal of the clitoris, and sometimes the inner and outer labia. In some instances, FGM can also involve the vagina being sewn shut.
The stories they shared with us were horrific.
One woman, Beatrice*, spoke of how when she had resisted, the rest of the community had shunned her, saying she had no place gathering water with them or participating in community food preparation because she was “dirty”. She continued to resist, despite being told she was bringing shame on her family. But she woke up one day in her mother-in-law’s house, with blood all over the sheets. She had been drugged and cut against her will.
But resistance like this is not common. Most of the women had willingly undergone FGM—although all their stories were similarly shocking. They were unable to walk immediately after the procedure, in some cases bled for months, and when healed, found sex almost impossible. Their marriages foundered, their husbands slept separately, and in some cases, their families collapsed.
And yet every woman we spoke to that day said the same thing—FGM is part of their culture and it is how women gain respect in their community. Without it, how could the community respect them? Resisting the practice was not in their best interest.
The women told us that FGM is not something that is discussed. Before it happens to you, you know it happens, and you know who has and hasn’t been ‘cut’. In this community, those who have carry four small scars on their outer forearms, signifying their respectability. But this is the limit of their knowledge. Of the pain and the consequences, they know nothing.