Dealing with female genital mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is a practice whose origin and significance is shrouded in ambiguity and mystification. World Health Organization, WHO, defined it as all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organ for non-medical reasons.

This dangerous tradition and women’s right violation has been so widespread that, many still erroneously see it as a form of cultural identity.

Though still practiced in more than 28 countries in Africa and a few scattered communities worldwide, the burden of FGM is seen in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, Central African Republic, and Northern part of Ghana where it has been an old traditional and cultural practice of various ethnic groups. FGM is also said to persist amongst immigrant populations living in Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand,

Nigeria, due to its large population, has the highest absolute number of female genital mutilation worldwide, accounting for about one-quarter of the estimated 115-130 million circumcised women in the world. The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey (NDHS) 2013 showed a prevalence of FGM among adult women by geopolitical zone to be highest in the South-West with 56.9 per cent; South-East 40.8 per cent; South-South 34.7 per cent; North-Central 9.6 per cent; North-East 1.3 per cent; and North-West 0.4 per cent.

As reported in the NDHS, 45 out of every 100 adult women living in Lagos State for instance have undergone FGM at one time or another. This is largely due to migration from those states where the prevalence is much higher.

It is a sad irony that the southern states that have higher literacy levels are also the most involved in this primitive socio-cultural practice. Reasons range from a belief that it reduces sexual desire and promiscuity; promotes chastity and helps young ladies attract husbands early. It is also wrongly ascribed to religious beliefs and traditional norms of female rites of adulthood. This has regrettably done more harm than good.

Positive side of the advocacy to stamp out the scourge is the buying-in of policy makers and influencers especially in the recent time. In most States today, wives of our governors are the faces of the fight against the scourge. This is to tell us that we are not in a hopeless situation of totally eradicating the barbaric women violation.

From informed religious perspective, none of the three main monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – prescribe female circumcision. Even if they do, should religion be indifferent to a cruel and barbaric practice?  Evidently, proof people hold on to as religious verdict to engage in the practice is also rooted in culture and not divine injunction per se. Meanwhile, culture itself, is not static but it is on constant flux, adapting and reforming. In other words, man creates culture in the first instance before culture started to create man.

To discerning minds, promiscuity largely stems from orientation rather than the non-tampering with the female genitals.  So, knowledge about the problems could help people take appropriate decisions and act in accordance with decisions taken. As of now, much of the accumulated knowledge about FGM and fistula indicates that FGM and fistula have negative health implications. Worse, medical experts and studies by WHO, UNICEF and other world bodies assert that, unlike male circumcision, FGM has no medical benefits whatsoever. On the other hand, says the UN Population Fund, “FGM does irreparable harm. It can result in death through severe bleeding, pain and trauma and overwhelming infections.” WHO adds that it also results in problems with urinating, could cause cysts, infections, infertility and complications in childbirth. “Women with FGM are significantly more likely than those without FGM to have adverse obstetrics outcomes including: Prolonged or obstructed labour, obstetric fistula, postpartum (after delivery) hemorrhage and extended maternal hospital stay.

For the infants, young girls and women who are subjected to the dehumanizing practice; it is routinely traumatic and has been linked to cervical cancer, a major killer of Nigerian women.  At the same time, it is more often also undertaken by local birth attendants or untrained “surgeons” using crude and un-sterilised instruments. It is reported that FGM victims go through extremely painful menstrual periods when they reach puberty and painful sex in marriage.

Given these points, FGM constitutes violence against women and it is about time it is stoutly resisted and completely eradicated just same way culture of killing of twins was done.

While the government of Nigeria in the last decade has recognized the practice of female genital mutilation as harmful to children and women and has embarked on corrective measures, aimed at addressing the end of the practice through the formulation of policies/programmes, legislation and behavioural change, the practice is still common.

The practice of FGM is contrary to Child Rights Law of 2004, the 1999 constitution and other document including the Violence against Persons (Prohibition) Act 2015 banning the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) signed by the immediate former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan in May 2015. Major challenges have emerged regarding the enforcement of the Law, with some claiming that the illegality of the practice has served to push it underground.

Then, where do we go from here? The way forward is usage of communication for development. There is need to resort to and prioritize reverse flow of communication.  People should be ready to change their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realize that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture.

Against the practice of sponsoring people on pilgrimage and government involvement in religious/traditional activities, governments at various level should work with and empower the custodians of the people’s culture and tradition, faith-based organizations, teachers, youth groups, women group and town union executives among other stakeholders. Empowerment in this context is in form of effective communication and sharing of strategies that will allow the social actors and custodians of custom and religion be in a position to educate their people on the evils of FGM. Perhaps, what the law could not achieve, enlightenment will do.

The state governments should begin to pursue FGM eradication measures with as much vigour as the polio immunization programme. States and Local Governments where in existence should urgently revive the primary health care system and eliminate the local, untrained mutilators who use unsanitary tools to harm our girls in the name of circumcision. Elimination of local and untrained mutilators however requires provision of alternative source of livelihood.

Parents and guardians should be made to be aware and understand that FGM has no single health benefit, but often condemns women to sexual frustration when married. Ending FGM lies in usage of multi-disciplinary approach which must involve legislation, partnership between State and communities, professional health organizations, women empowerment and public sensitization. Most importantly, let the desired attitunal change begin from the communities.


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