Ugandan police have arrested 16 men and three women suspected of facilitating female genital mutilation (FGM) in the eastern region, the Guardian reports.
The arrests came after local media reported that more than 400 girls and women had been being forcefully subjected to FGM by local gangs over the past month. The gangs were as large as 100 people, led by elderly women and enforced by men carrying machetes, reports say.
Activists said at least 10 women were about to undergo FGM at the time that the police and military jointly intervened and arrested the suspects in Kween district.
“Some of the people we arrested include those who participate in the process, the people who cut, those who prepare the girls for circumcision, the ones who sing during the celebrations and all that,” Uganda’s Deputy Police Spokesperson Polly Namaye said. “[FGM] hurts the girls [and women], it makes them uncomfortable and fear for themselves. It’s torture in itself.”
Though FGM is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment — or a life sentence for health care workers who perform FGM — human rights activists say authorities are not doing enough to enforce the law. Advocates say that more also must be done to change the stubborn attitudes and cultural beliefs that perpetuate FGM.
“No single approach can eliminate FGM,” said Mercy Munduru, a program officer with the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers.
“Criminalizing the practice only will not change people’s behavior. We recommend greater government involvement in the protection of women’s rights. Tackle the secrecy that allows cutting to continue,” she added.
Read More: FGM in the US: The Hidden Crime Next Door
FGM is a harmful cultural practice — though often mistakenly believed to be a religious one — that was criminalized in Uganda in 2010. The medically unnecessary procedure involves the cutting and damaging of female genitalia to varying extents and stems from the belief that a girl’s value is inextricably tied to her virginity. In cultures where the practice is prevalent, girls who have not undergone FGM may be considered undesirable for marriage.
The practice, a form of gender-based violence, occurs around the world. While Somalia, Guinea, and Djibouti have some of the highest rates of FGM, according to UNICEF’s data, many women and girls in the UK, US, and Canada are also subjected to the practice.
More than 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone FGM, the World Health Organization reports.
“We encourage that this [practice] is not carried on,” Namaye said. “We encourage the women to stand up for themselves and refuse to take part in this ritual, which was made criminal by law.”