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Ugandan Ethnic Group Criticized for Forced Male Circumcision


Every other year, the Bagishu of eastern Uganda circumcise young boys as part of a ritual symbolizing their entry into manhood. But many non Bagishu and human rights activists complain the practice is coercive.

From Kampala, Voice of America's Peterson Ssendi reports that every even year the Bagishu celebrate a ritual – called “imbalu” -- which is said to turn boys into men. During the three days of festivities, the boys dance, visit friends and family, and receive gifts. The "candidates" are decorated with animal skins and wave two black and white Colubus monkey tails in the air.

Spicing up the event are drums, whistles and traditional items such as fiddles, flutes, and group singing. There’s also bell ringing. The bells are tightly attached to the “candidates” thighs. During this exercise, Bagishu tribesmen willingly take their sons from age 13 up for circumcision. Many boys go willingly and see it as part of their cultural obligation.

For the celebration, the Bagishu prepare for the candidates their favorite dish of bamboo shoots called “malewa." Bamboo strips are handed down to each “candidate” by the oldest uncle on the father’s side. The strips are
said to symbolize the responsibility and strength needed to face the challenge of manhood.

Bagishu females also show their approval by singing and rejoicing as "Omusinde," a man who is uncircumcised, becomes an "Omusani" which is a man who is circumcised.

The new entrant is normally smeared with herbs, which are said to instill strength in him before the foreskin of his penis is removed. The ritual has it that the young boy has to behave well and avoid crying during the process if he is to become a brave man.

During each so-called “male”, or even-numbered year, the elders come together and hunt down those trying to avoid circumcision by hiding in cities.

Masava, a Mugishu elder, says:The majority of police personnel in Kampala are non Bagishu who mistakenly view this ritual as some kind of human rights abuse. Consequently, this makes it extremely difficult to carry out our cultural duty of apprehending and circumcising Bagishu men hiding in Kampala."

When a boy is caught, he is stripped naked amidst the crowd and forcefully circumcised, which the non Bagishu consider a human rights abuse.

The director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, Livingstone Ssewanyana, tells the aggrieved Bagishu to approach the constitutional court and seek legal redress. He says to circumcise members of their tribe is acceptable as long as it’s not coercive. He says the constitution does not allow members of the Bagishu to feel that they are being coerced and that it's being done without their consent. He says, "They are entitled as aggrieved parties to go before the constitutional court to seek a declaration."

Among the Bagishu, uncircumcised men are treated with contempt; they are not allowed in society and in most cases they are seen as failing to get local women for marriage. This is supported by all the Bagishu including women who often report
uncircumcised men to tribal elders. It's considered traditional that no male is to escape the ritual regardless of where he lives, what he does or what kind of security he has.

A Mugishu elder defends the practice by saying: "If a man in our tribe remains uncircumcised beyond the age of 18 he is hunted down wherever he may be and
forcefully circumcised. In 1992 we ambushed and successfully circumcised a high ranking government official...We who carry out this ritual carry out our cultural duties without fear or favour just like a surgeon in hospital will operate on any one who requires his services"

The practice is still being debated as a human rights issue among those not affiliated with the Bagishu in Uganda.

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