In Uganda, a Male Circumcision Campaign Goes Horribly Wrong

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Is there anything more terrifying (to a guy, at least) than a pack of determined males trying to cut off part of your penis? In the Ugandan town of Mbale, where a non-coercive circumcision campaign aimed at reducing HIV transmission has metastatized into forced circumcisions, that nightmare scenario is a reality.

Today, international affairs magazine The Africa Report describes the scene of a naked man fleeing 50 men attempting to forcibly circumcise him. "Only identified as Deo, the man sought sanctuary ... as the men and a local scalpel-wielding surgeon gave chase," reports Godfrey Olukya. In the last two days, more than 40 men have been subjected to forced circumcision in the town due to a disturbing mix of cultural and science-based values. The men who fell prey to the forced circumcision campaign were targeted because their wives or girlfriends were part of the Bamasaba tribe, which prescribes circumcision to all males from the age of 15. "We are helping those who feared getting circumcised through cultural processes," said program leader Badru Wasike, who told Africa Report that it was a cultural and health exercise. "We are aware that circumcised men do not easily get infected with HIV/AIDS. Since they love our relatives we want them to be safe."

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In Uganda, a nationwide effort to encourage circumcision began in 2010 when the Ministry of Health launched an initiative to circumcise one million men in 2012. That program was inspired by a study by U.S. officials at the National Institutes of Health on HIV transmission in Uganda and Kenya. Following that study, UNAIDS projected that Uganda could halve its HIV transmissions if 4.2 million Ugandan men were circumcised in the next five years. (Three-fourths of all Ugandan men are uncircumcised.) The Reuters image to the right shows a boy in Mbale following the ceremonial circumcision process.

Unsurprisingly, the program in Mbale has faced a stiff backlash with Olukya describing a "wave of protests in the town." Yesterday, for instance, the Ugandan state-newspaper New Vision reported that police in Mbale had to fire teargas to disperse members of the Bamasaba tribe who were forcefully circumcising people outside their tribe. The District Police Commander Michael Angucia said that "due to public outcry from the people and local leaders, police had no alternative but to provide security on the streets to restore serenity in town, adding that some people have fled town and abandoned business in Mbale." The paper says that since the Bamasaba tribe began its forced coercion campaign, 220 people have been circumcised. 

With a tribe like Bamasaba taking the initiative too far, the practice of forced-circumcision has become a human rights issue. "Men were told to unzip on the streets to ascertain whether they had been circumcised," human rights activist Keneth Mabonga told The Africa Report. "That is not only unfair but also inhuman," In the Ugandan newspaper The Observer, Patience Akumu describes the rising problem of forcefully-circumcised men harboring lingering emotional problems. "Tales of the brutal arrests and forceful circumcision the men go through are rife, but somehow they never receive that much attention," reads the report. "It is hard for society to fathom that the macho men can be on the receiving end of physical and verbal attacks, particularly in the private arena where they rule as kings. Sexual and gender-based violence campaigns almost always focus on women as victims and the men only feature as perpetrators." 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.