Killing of twins and albinos, and the drawing of tribal marks on faces, are some of the traditions that have gone into extinction in Nigeria, but female genital mutilation has refused to go away despite its health and social consequences. Rebecca Ejifoma writes on the need for urgent government and societal interventions against the practise
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), is the partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It is done either with a blade or massaged daily to whither or fold into the vagina.
True, almost everyone has heard of this ‘tradition’ done against the girl-child. Over 200 million girls and women have undergone the unfortunate experience, with majority of them living in 30 countries, including Nigeria.
For instance, in Nigeria alone, studies have shown that about 40 million women and girls have been subjected to FGM, with majority of its victims oblivious of the dangers it poses to their health and social life.
One of such families that have experienced the barbaric act is that of Mrs. Augustina, whose four daughters were circumcised. They are now aged 10, six, four and three.
She said her daughters were cut at one month old while their navels were falling off. “When I had my first child, my in-laws came quickly to my home from the village with their nurse. They say she is a professional in the ‘business’. I refused them to touch my daughters, but because there was no one to stand by me, they overpowered me. While they were cutting my first daughter, I had to call my mum because I was confused, but she told me she knew about the practise, even though in my place they just rob it till it withers.
Augustina, an indigene of Edo State, is married to a man from Imo State, whose family, according to her, was a staunch FGM believer. “Even my mother-in-law told me that FGM will make my daughters responsible and not promiscuous. So, they cut my second, third and fourth daughters,” she notes.
She said in her case, the clitoris of her girls were totally cut off and the upper parts scrapped.
FGM could make a female promiscuous
Contrary to traditional belief, a nurse and advocate against FGM, Mrs. Folorunso Adelapo has revealed that the practise does not stop promiscuity, adding that, as a matter of fact it promotes promiscuity among women.
She said unfortunately, the men holding fast to FGM as a culture were those that think they want to marry women that are submissive sexually, whereas in reality, the practise would rather make women less submissive.
Buttressing her point, she said the clitoris that is being cut was a sensitive organ that God has made, such that during sexual intercourse the woman is aroused. “That is what makes a woman feels satisfied because it is fully vascularised (full of blood vessel). During sexual intercourse, when the male organ touches the clitoris, the woman feels this satisfaction in her, but if you cut it off, she does not feel that satisfaction. Hence, she continues to look for satisfaction else where.
“She will not know the circumcision on her is the reason she is not sexually satisfied. She will go from one man to another, and yet another. Unlike a woman whose clitoris is intact and gets satisfied during sexual intercourse,” she explained.
Adelapo, who has spent over 23 years in the field, said culture was dynamic, hence the need for the FGM practise to change. “But that has been very difficult to change, as people continue to lay claim to culture. When you ask them why their culture tells them to cut girls, they will tell you it is simply their culture. A culture that cannot be explained, that cannot be dynamic should be changed,” she stressed.
Interestingly, in those days, she recounts, “I come from a place where tribal marks were drawn on children’s faces for purpose of identity. But with time, when we could write down the names of the children, tribal marks gradually disappeared. So, if we have a culture that has no usefulness, why can’t it be changed?
In the South-west, during childbirth, it is believed that if the head of a baby touches the clitoris during delivery, the baby will die. She countered: “This is a lie. I’m a midwife. I’ve taken several deliveries of uncircumcised women. And you see, God is so wonderful that during labour, the vulvar widens so much that the clitoris is pushed to the back of the vulvar and the head of the baby can never touch it.”However, reports also show that no baby dies from having contact with the mother’s clitoris during childbirth.
As an advocate for girl-child and women, this expert continued that from what they now tell people, apart from the medical and health hazard of this, it is an inhuman act which also bothers on the right of the girl-child.
She said the clitoris, among other areas, could make a woman aroused, adding that for some women, it is their nipples, while others could be their inner thighs. “So, do you cut off their nipples or their thighs because it could make them aroused? So, let them think twice.”
Besides, other health risks or complications attached to FGM include, she said severe pain during sexual intercourse, excessive bleeding during or after child delivery, genital tissue swelling, impaired wound, psychological consequences, mensural problems, female sexual health, shock in delivery, obstetric complications, infections like HIV/AIDs, leakage of urine and faeces and even death.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified FGM into four broad categories in 1995 and again in 2007: I: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and/or the prepuce. II: Partial or total removal of the clitoris and labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora. III: Narrowing of the vaginal orifice by cutting and bringing together the labia minora and/or the labia majora to create a type of seal, with or without excision of the clitoris. IV: All other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, for example: pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterisation.
Research shows that geopolitical zones in Nigeria like South-east, North Central, North West, South-south uphold this long due traditional practice firmly. While some carry out this cut when the baby is still in infancy, others do it a day to the girl’s wedding or few days to the delivery of her first baby, findings show.
Sadly, Mrs. Vivian (surname withheld), who is a media practitioner in her late 30s, shares her own tale with THISDAY. “When my uncle heard I gave birth to a baby girl in Washington DC, United States, he called me to ensure I kept the tradition alive. He instructed me on how to remove the clitoris since the nurses from our village were not there.”
According to her, she was told to grease her thumb with vaseline and massage the clitoris of the child daily until it fell off. “My uncle said if I continued pressing it with my thumb, the clitoris would either wither and fall off or pull into the baby’s body,” she explained.
Enforcement of the Law
The ex-president Goodluck Jonathan’s government passed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition bill (VAPP) into law last year. The law prohibits female circumcision, forceful ejection from home and harmful widowhood practices after 11 states in Nigeria banned FGM. And today, however, Ebonyi State has followed swiftly with the enactment of a five year jail term against anyone who carries out the harm on girls. Still the practice continues.
In an interview with THISDAY, the Chairman, Lagos Advocacy Working Group, Barrister Ayo Adebusoye, said Nigerians should understand that law was one thing and enforcement was another. “I think again this is where awareness comes in. People need to know why FGM is unacceptable in the modern society. It’s just like the maltreatment of widows and all.”
He, however, argued that “we may talk about the law, but it is the belief system of the people that matters, and it can only be elevated by education. It shouldn’t be tolerated in the 21st century Nigeria. It is an abomination and harmful. It leads to very unnecessary mortality in women,” he added.
The advocate further urged the government and the media to collaborate in broadcasting the dangers of FGM. “Those who are caught should be sanctioned as an example to others. Without sanctions, people will keep doing it. After all, there was Atlantic Slave Trade. But when people saw sanctions – though it took a while – it was checked.”
He described a lot of traditions practiced in the country as criminal. “Some of our traditions are criminal! We need to be brave enough to say we are not doing it again. Have we all as a people decided that this is unacceptable? If not, people will keep saying tradition must come first.”
So, unanimously, these experts alongside several others have suggested that all religious leaders, traditional rulers alongside community leaders should say this is unacceptable.
He further said: “When everybody is educated, when every woman is empowered enough to take decisions over her children and over herself, FGM will be abolished. As long as we remain a patrician society where men still make decisions for us, it will take time but we will get there,” he stressed.