Sungi Mlengeya v Juliet Kushaba and The Controversy On Female Genital

Journalist: Antonio Capalandanda
Artist: Diane Webb

Cape Town, March 24, 2020

Sungi Mlengeya* is an emerging artist from Tanzania. Her art work consists of “dark figures in minimal shades of black and brown against perfectly white backgrounds”. The common themes in her work concern women, specifically black women.

The 29-year-old Mlengeya lives in Uganda, a country that borders Tanzania, her country of origin. A self-taught painter, Mlengeya graduated with a degree in commerce and finance in 2013. In 2018, she left her banking job to pursue a full-time artistic career.

In June 2019, she left Tanzania and moved to Kampala, Uganda, a month after contacting Daudi Karungi, director of the Afriart Gallery in Kampala. The gallery is a creative space dedicated to showing, teaching and discovering young talent.

“I started working with Daudi in June 2019. I e-mailed the gallery about my work and they invited me to a workshop in May 2019. They liked what I was doing and that’s how we started working together.” Despite being born in Tanzania and living in Uganda, countries where there are many instances of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), Mlengeya told #Kizola that she just celebrates hope.

“I would prefer that my work is not linked to that topic (FGM). I celebrate them (women) and focus on the positive.” On the other hand, Juliet Kushaba 36, is a writer who was born in western Uganda (Bushenyi). Kushaba is a member of the Uganda Women’s Writers Association (FEMRITE) and has published short stories and poems. She uses tales and poems to fight against FGM. FGM, is the deliberate cutting or removal of the external female genitalia, namely the lips and clitoris; is “a procedure that injures the female genitals without medical justification” according to the World Health Organisation.

In an interview with #Kizola, Kushaba said that art can (and is) playing an important role in ending genital mutilation in Uganda. “Literature (for example, victim stories) has a powerful way of changing people’s minds,” said Kushaba.

“All forms of art, subtle or not, have a depth that touches human beings to evoke feelings of empathy that common laws or policies, for example, may not have the power to achieve. Art also has the power to initiate a conversation on a subject (such as) FGM that many people in the  communities that practice it consider taboo. “

FGM deeply rooted in some cultures 

In Uganda, where FGM was banned in 2010, a total of 226 cases of FGM were reported in December 2018 and January 2019 in the Sebei region. “FGM cuts were conducted in broad aylight in Kween Town under the protection of young people with pangas,” wrote Alain Sibenaler, representative of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Kampala, who answered questions from NPR, an independent, nonprofit media organiszation. In May 2018, a report by the Thomson Reuters foundation, “Uganda: The Law and FGM”, revealed that although some arrests have been made and cases brought to court in Uganda since the introduction of the FGM Act in 2010, generally the implementation of national law and enforcement remains a challenge, the practice continues in remote rural areas, where support for the practice remains strong and FGM has been carried out increasingly in secret.

“In Uganda, the prevalence of FGM in women aged 15 to 49 is 0.3%. Girls are typically cut at 10 years of age or older. The highest prevalence is in the Karamoja region in the northeast at 6. 4%, followed by Bujesu at 2.6%, Kampala 0.5%, Bukedi 0.2%, Teso and Busoga 0.1%, ” the Thomson Reuters foundation showed.
Kushaba said that FGM, like any other cultural practice, is deeply rooted in cultural expectations. The norms that enshrine this practice make it even more difficult to contest, even through politics.

“I would like to share an anecdote here: In many communities that practice FGM in this country, if a woman is not circumcised, she is considered less of a woman than those who are circumcised. She is discriminated against in all aspects of the community. For example, an ncircumcised woman cannot draw water from a well before the other circumcised women have drawn – even if she got to the well first – as long as the other women appear, they will draw first. In essence, she is considered a child who should respect her “elders” and “give way.”

Because of such concerns that lower the social status of uncircumcised women, according to the writer, “women are always willing (and aspiring) to be cut, despite the pain, and sometimes the risks involved in the almost rudimentary process even when practice is a crime.” A report published by the Joint UNFPA-UNICEF Programme listed 32 reported cases and six arrests, but none were brought to court in Uganda in 2016. 

Can cinema or documentaries change the practices of female genital mutilation? 

In 2016, a study by the University of Zurich researchers suggested that cinema can change attitudes about FGM, possibly reducing the practice. The researchers showed four versions of a film to about 8,000 people in 127 villages in Sudan. The films portrayed everyday conflicts in extended families.

Sonja Vogt and Charles Efferson, authors of the survey, found that a film examining cultural attitudes towards FGM involving elderly people in an extended family had the greatest impact. And arguments for the suitability of girls for marriage, if they hadn’t been mutilated, also seemed to change the attitudes of viewers, at least temporarily, in favour of limiting or terminating the practice. Researcher Efferson said there is a reason why they chose to use cinema in an effort to deal with FGM.

“Entertainment can be an attractive tool for change, because people like to have fun,” he said, adding that “entertainment can often reach a much larger audience than educational documentaries.

Documentaries are at risk of preaching to the converted. ” But Kushaba differs. “Documentaries also have a way of making the experience very explicit and” real, “and touching the heart of people’s hearts and making them reflect,” she said. According to a report fron 2015, in Tanzania, “Demographic and Health Survey and Malaria Indicator Survey”, following a study conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and Office of the Chief Statistician of the Government (OCGS), Zanzibar, one in ten women in this country has been circumcised. The most common type of FGC involves cutting and removing pulp (81%).

The UN says although the practice is mainly concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East, it also occurs in Asia and Latin America. And among immigrant populations living in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.

In 2016, a report by Voice of America suggested that “in many cultures, FGM is based on tradition or religion. Many practitioners believe that it reduces promiscuity in women, makes women more pure and, in patriarchal societies, more desirable to marry.” About 200 million girls and women worldwide are currently experiencing the agony of female genital mutilation, according to the UN. But Juliet Kushaba is hopeful that if they continue to take a more creative approach and accelerate their efforts, the prevalence of FGM will decrease rapidly.

* Mlengeya participated in the Investec Cape Town Art Fair 2020, which took place from February 14 to February 16, 2020, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre.