LAGOS, Nigeria — Female genital mutilation (FGM) is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as all procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs, whether for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reasons. In Nigeria, subjection of girls and women to obscure traditional practices is legendary.
FGM is an unhealthy traditional practice inflicted on girls and women worldwide. Female Genital Mutilation is widely recognized as a violation of human rights, which is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and perceptions over decades and generations with no easy task for change.
In 1994, the World Health Organization (WHO) convened a group of experts to reach a standardized definition of FGM. They defined the practice as “all procedures which involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reasons.” They further classified the practice into four types.
- Type I: Removal of the prepuce or hood of clitoris and or all part of the clitoris itself.
- Type II: Removal of clitoris along with partial or total excision of labia minora.
- Type III: Removal of clitoris, labia minora and adjacent medial part of labia majora and stitching of vaginal opening, leaving an opening the size of a pinhead to allow for the flow of menstrual blood and urine; a very severe form also known as infibulations
- Type IV: Unclassified; includes pricking, piercing or incisions on the clitoris and/or labia, cauterization of burning of clitoris and surrounding tissues, scraping of the vaginal orifice or cutting of the vagina and other procedure which falls under the definitions of FGM above.
Though FGM is practiced in more than 28 countries in Africa and a few scattered communities worldwide, its burden is seen in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, the Central African Republic and northern Ghana, where it has been an old traditional and cultural practice of various ethnic groups.
The highest prevalence rates are found in Somalia and Djibouti, where Female Genital Mutilation is virtually universal.
FGM is widely practiced in Nigeria; with its large population, Nigeria has the highest absolute number of cases of FGM in the world, accounting for about one-quarter of the estimated 115 million to 130 million circumcised women worldwide.
In Nigeria, FGM has the highest prevalence in the south-south (77 percent among adult women,) followed by the south east (68 percent) and south west (65 percent,) but practiced on a smaller scale in the north, paradoxically tending to in a more extreme form.
Nigeria has a population over 160 million people with the woman population forming 52 percent. The national prevalence rate of Female Genital Mutilation is 41 percent among adult women. Prevalence rates progressively decline in the young age groups and 37 percent of circumcised women do not want FGM to continue.
61 percent of women who do not want FGM said it was a bad harmful tradition and 22% said it was against religion. Other reasons cited were medical complications (22 percent,) painful personal experience (10 percent) and the view that Female Genital Mutilation is against the dignity of women (10 percent.)
However, there is still considerable support for the practice in areas where it is deeply rooted in local tradition. Statistics from Amnesty International show that about 135 million women worldwide have been subjected to the practice; each year, three million girls and women are mutilated, which represents 8,000 girls per day.
According to a WHO report, in Nigeria, an estimated 30,625 women and girls have undergone at least one form of FGM. Various reasons advanced for the practice include preserving virginity, therapeutic reasons, peer pressure, religion and tradition.
For the records, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has classified FGM as a harmful traditional practice which represents one of the most serious forms of violence against women. Nigeria ratified that convention in 1985. CEDAW requires that all parties take necessary measures to modify or abolish customs and practices that affront the dignity of women.
The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria states: “no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment”. To be sure, Female Genital Mutilation is a serious form of torture as can be seen from the trauma experienced by some on whom it is performed. In fact just viewing some slides of mutilated females tortures the psyche. Other legal instruments that put FGM in a bad light or condemn it outright have been passed at various levels.
Experts show the physical and psychological effect of the practice are very extensive, affecting the reproductive and mental well-being of circumcised women. This includes pain, shock, bleeding, acute urine retention, risk of blood borne diseases and, in the long term recurrent urinary tract infection, sexual dysfunction, Vesico-vaginal Fistula and keloid scars.
According to clerics, none of the three main faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – prescribe female circumcision. Even if they do, should religion be indifferent to a cruel and barbaric practice?
Worse, medical experts and studies by WHO and other world bodies assert that unlike male circumcision, it has no medical benefits whatsoever. On the other hand, says the United Nations 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.
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.
It is more often also undertaken by local birth attendants or untrained “surgeons” using crude and un-sterilized instruments. It is reported that Female Genital Mutilation victims go through extremely painful menstrual periods when they reach puberty and painful sex in marriage.
Nigeria must therefore do more to tap into the resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly to eliminate FGM. It follows on an earlier resolution passed in 2008, emphasizing the need for concerted action by all sectors – health, education, finance, justice and women’s affairs. UNICEF, the UN Populations Fund and women’s rights groups have also identified FGM as a gross violation of human rights.
The federal, state and local governments need to urgently mobilize resources to step up the anti-FGM campaign. Remedies should include passing legislation criminalizing Female Genital Mutilation. States, mostly in the southern part of the country, where it is more prevalent, should not wait for federal laws, but should back up mass enlightenment with tough laws to discourage the filthy practice.
This brutal violation of the rights of girls and women must be brought to an end. Religious leaders and community heads should educate their people on the evils of FGM. The state governments should pursue Female Genital Mutilation eradication measures with as much vigor as the polio immunization program. States and LGs 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.
– Adama Dickson Salami