Four years after Nigeria’s lawmakers criminalised female genital mutilation and outlawed the barbaric act, the practice has continued to thrive. But the recent jailing by the UK government of a woman who mutilated her three year old has shown that with political will Nigeria can as well implement the law. Martins Ifijeh writes
Kemi, a 14-year-old girl, will never forget in a hurry the pain she experienced on Saturday, September 26, 2015, when she was subjected to a degrading and dehumanising act of mutilation in the name of circumcision, engineered by her parents, and carried out by three women hired by the family. A practice the Nigerian government said it had outlawed and ready to prosecute anyone involved in the barbaric act.
Kemi never saw it coming that faithful day as she woke up ready to do the house chores and subsequently spend the day playing with her two younger brothers. But she was wrong. Her parents had planned to subject her to the barbaric practice in the name of fulfilling a cultural obligation.
“That morning, one of my mum’s aunts and two other women came to the house and in company of my mum, told me it was time to circumcise me. I was surprised, scared and unable to mutter any word. I made for the door, but it seems they knew what I was planning, they held me down and prevented me from leaving. At that point, I knew it was too late to avoid it. I struggled to fight it but I couldn’t.
“While displaying the ‘surgical equipments’ on the table, they told me I will be alright once they were done. My aunt rubbed a brownish substance in between my legs, which she said would make the circumcision painless. But whatever she rubbed didn’t work. I felt the pain of the blade and other tools she used while carrying out the act. I died many times because I couldn’t struggle it out since the other two women had pinned me down. All I could do was shout and shout till they were done.”
As her aunt finished the exercise, it was time for them to sing and dance. To them, Kemi has now fulfilled most of the requirements of being a complete woman. But all Kemi could feel was pain and emptiness. A vital part of her body-part has been cut off; an act that may end up changing the course of her life forever negatively.
“I couldn’t understand why my mum was all smiles when the act was done. She told me it was our tradition and that she was also circumcised when she was about my age, raising my hope that it was a normal practice,” she said. But to Kemi, it is not a normal practice, because she had discussed female genital mutilation with her peers in school months ago and they all concluded that it was a bad and outdated practice.
Kemi, who wants to read nursing in the university, said few days after the circumcision, although she discovered she was no longer feeling the intense pain whenever she bathes, but the scar and memory of the mutilation had left an indelible mark.
Another woman, Morenikeji, who lives in Pedro village, a small community in Lagos State, also gave an account of how a newly born girl child in her compound was mutilated in the name of female circumcision, months after the country’s law makers had outlawed it. She said few days after the girl was born, sometime in August last year, the parents circumcised her.
“Before they did it, I told my neighbour that the practice was outdated and that doctors were kicking against it, but she didn’t listen. Even her husband told me it is cultural, hence there was nothing that could be done to stop them from performing the act on the little child, especially with the fact that his wife went through the process when she was born. Eventually, they circumcised her. I knew either they were ignorant of the law against it, or they feel their culture supersedes the voice of reasoning,” Morenikeji added.
Kemi and the aforementioned child are just few among the several thousands of young girls and women in Nigeria who have undergone the barbaric act since the seventh National Assembly passed the bill criminalising the practice four years ago.
There is in fact a dim hope for the Nigerian girl child as no offender has been prosecuted even as the practice is still openly done in the country.
But same can no longer be said of the United Kingdom government, who has recently dusted the law from its archive and for the first time prosecuted and jailed a mother of a three year old, who was mutilated.
The 37-year-old Ugandan woman, who has been sentenced to jail, was guilty of intentionally mutilating her daughter with the hope that when she grows up she will have a reduced sexual urge and hence not be promiscuous; a claim health experts have said was ridiculous.
The trial judge, Justice Whipple emphasised that the sentencing will serve as deterrent to other families in the UK who still believe female genital mutilation can be carried out on their girl child.
The successful prosecution in the UK has shown that with political will Nigeria can as well dust its law on FGM, and start bringing offenders to book. Medical experts have therefore called on the government to show it was not just a toothless bulldog which can bite only when pushed or pressured to.
Speaking with THISDAY, a Public Health Physician, Dr. Raymond Ajae, said his reservation is on whether the practice can ever be reduced in the country, which will in turn help in saving the lives of the over 40 million Nigerian women and girls prone to the numerous health and psychological implications occasioned by the cruel practice.
He said what was worrisome was that the law passed by the National Assembly may just be a mere exercise, just like the way it was in several other states that have outlawed the practice many years ago, yet still thrive in the act.
It would be recalled that Edo State outlawed this practice 22 years ago, same with about eight other states in the country who outlawed the practice at one point in time or the other, yet the cruel act still thrives in these states without offenders brought to justice.
Dr. Ajae said: “Since 2015, nobody is talking about criminalising FGM anymore. Now that the law is still very fresh in the country, this is the time the Ministry of Health, health bodies, our law enforcement agencies and public spirited individuals must come out and stop this scourge through the stick and carrot approach.
“If the health ministry and other health bodies decide to go out and raise awareness on the health and psychological implications of the practice and also educate families, especially young girls on their rights when it comes to circumcision, and the law enforcement agencies go out to enforce the law by bringing offenders to justice, this practice will be the least of our worries in this country”.
He noted that if Nigerians were unaware that the practice may cause Vesico-Vaginal Fistula and other health related issues, as well as its criminalisation, then, it would be difficult for the citizens to report offenders to the government or better still educate their neighbors on the health implications.
Ajae believed that it was the only way the law will be effective in the country, adding that, this will help reduce the scourge or even eliminate it. “The government must understand that this barbaric act against the girl child is worse than rape and battery. How can young girls be subjected to bodily harm, psychological trauma and the possibility of a lifelong health problem, yet the government is treating the issue with a kid gloves?” he queried.
He also called on women advocates to take it upon themselves to lead the campaign against the act in the country, as well as pressure the federal government to do the needful in terms of enforcement of the law.
According to experts, FGM comprises of various procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or other injuries to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, and it involves different types, including; clitoridectomy (partial or total removal of the clitoris), excision (removal of part or all of the clitoris and lips that surrounds the vagina), infibulation (narrowing of the vaginal opening by creating a seal, formed by cutting and repositioning the labia) and other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, including pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterising the genital area.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 25 per cent of the 140 million girls and women living with FGM worldwide are in Nigeria, a report that portends the great danger this can be for the Nigerian girl child.
A study carried out by WHO also showed that of the 101 million girls of 10 years old and above estimated to have FGM in Africa, about 40.5 million are in Nigeria, making a 41 per cent prevalence rate among women in the country alone. Nigeria is also topping the chat as the country with the highest prevalence rate of the practice globally – A ‘fit’ not worthy of edifying human existence, especially for Nigeria that prides itself as the giant of Africa.
Call for Implementation
Another medical expert, a Gynaecologist and Obstetrician, Dr. Olaolu Adebowale, called on the government of President Muhammadu Buhari to see to the implementation of the law against the practice, adding that, the health risks associated with it were serious ones, hence the need to prevent them.
On why most Nigerians still practice the act, despite outcry against it, he said the practice was more of a cultural one than a moral obligation. “Most of our cultures believe the practice is necessary to attenuate sexual desire in the female, fidelity in marriage, as well as increase her male partner’s sexual desire when she starts having sex.
“Do you know that in some cultures in this country, they believe the best way to prevent young girls from losing their virginity before marriage is for them to be circumcised. Some even have this harebrained idea that a circumcised female will have a safer and stress free delivery than the one that is not mutilated.”
Adebowale, however believed these notions were largely untrue and does not give enough reason for the girl-child to be mutilated. “Female circumcision does not guarantee a safer childbirth than the one who is not circumcised. It does not determine promiscuity and it does not determine whether a woman and her male partner would enjoy sex better.”
According to him, the practice was more harmful to the girl-child and the society than the fake benefits the believers of the practice continue to put forward as reasons for the barbaric act.
Reeling out the harmful effects of the practice, he said a mutilated young girl who starts having sex at an early age was most likely going to have incontinence. “The consequences include irreversible lifelong health risks, possibility of infection due to unsterilised tools like blades, among other unhygienic activities during the mutilation.
He also added that FGM can lead to vesico-vaginal fistula, which is the opening of passages between the vagina and bladder or anus, a condition he said was more common with early age pregnancy.
Other health risks he enumerated include infertility, painful menstruation, hepatitis, Recto –Vaginal Fistula (RVF), among others.
He therefore admonished every Nigerian to take it upon themselves to curb the scourge through collaborative effort. “Mothers, churches, mosques, community councils, the government, well meaning Nigerians, as well as various health and corporate bodies should put hands together to reduce this menace,” he added.
He also recommended that health workers should educate women in their delivery wards not to circumcise their daughters.