The continued practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) around the country based on a belief system is impacting gravely on the future of women, writes Abiodun Eremosele
The pains she suffered made her weak. At age 14, Victoria Ibechukwu from a community in eastern Nigeria went through a humiliating experience of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As she sat with this reporter to recount her ordeal, she wished it had not happened to her. "I was forced against my wish," she said. "But female circumcision or genital mutilation is not leaving us so soon. It is so deep that no knife can cut it. I went through it, and it was so painful and damaging. I want it stopped, I want it stopped and I want it stopped. No new generation lives in its past. We don't need a barbaric culture anymore."
In a population of over 150 million people with women accounting for about 52 per cent, Nigeria accounts for about one-quarter of the estimated 115-130 million circumcised women in the world.
Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) according to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a procedure which involves 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 such obscure traditional practice is a common occurrence.
FGM is an unhealthy traditional practice inflicted on girls and women worldwide. It is widely recognised as a violation of human rights, which is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and perceptions over decades across generations with no easy task for change. 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, Central African Republic, and northern part of Ghana where it has been an old traditional and cultural practice of various ethnic groups.
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) most recent report, though found the practice on the decline but still projected that it will affect 30 million girls over the next decade.
So FGM reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It involves violation of rights of the children and violation of a person's right to health, security, and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death. Furthermore, girls usually undergo the practice without their informed consent, depriving them of the opportunity to make independent decision about their bodies.
According to a report by the Nigerian Medical Association, (NMA), FGM has the highest prevalence in the Southsouth ( 77 per cent among adult women), followed by the Southeast (68 per cent) and Southwest (65 per cent), but practiced on a smaller scale in the north, paradoxically tending to be in a more extreme form. The NMA report revealed that national prevalence rate of FGM is 41 per cent among adult women. The Prevalence rates progressively declined in the young age groups and 37 per cent of circumcised women do not want FGM to continue.
So far, some of the reasons given to justify FGM include: protecting tradition, preservation of chastity and purification, family honour, hygiene, aesthetic, protection of virginity and prevention of promiscuity, modification of sexual attitudes (countering failure of a woman to attain orgasm), increasing sexual pleasure of husband, enhancing fertility and increasing matrimonial opportunities. Other reasons are to prevent mother and child from dying during childbirth and for legal reasons (that one cannot inherit property if not circumcised).
In some parts of Nigeria, the cut edges of the external genitalia are smeared with secretions from a snail footpad with the belief that the snail being a slow animal would influence the circumcised girl to "go slowly" with sexual activities in future. However, FGM is often routinely performed as an integral part of social conformity and in line with community identity. Despite effort by government to curb the practice, it is important to note that the situation remains very much the same.
A man, Daniel Ewheredo told THISDAY of his recent encounter. He said: "I travelled to my village in Igueben Local Government Area, Edo State for my uncle's burial with my wife and our four daughters. A day after the burial, I was summoned to a family meeting where the issue centered on the circumcision of our four daughters who were given birth to in Lagos. I refused to agree to their terms and that led to a threat of kidnap and forceful circumcision of my children. But I escaped from the village with my family through the help of a close relative. When I returned to Lagos I had to employ a guard for my children even at school."
Ewheredo said he took the risk to escape to save his children from what their mother suffered when she was forced to be circumcised on the eve of their wedding eight years ago. According to him, his wife hails from Agenegbode in Estako West Local Government in Edo State. He claimed that it is the tradition of his wife's village that a woman must be circumcised on the eve of her marriage. He told THISDAY that when he resisted the circumcision of his wife before their marriage, he was simply told that his wife will never have a child without the ritual.
Ewheredo who said the agony his wife went through had left her with permanent scare told THISDAY that the complications she suffered as a result of the mutilation cost him a fortune and nearly took the life of her wife. Indeed, Ewheredo is not the only person that has had this experience. A certain Mrs Patience, who hails from a village in Esan West Local Government Area in Edo State, has fled her matrimonial home with her daughters, because of the pressure on her to allow her daughters to be circumcised. She told THISDAY that trouble started when her husband's brother visited them in Lagos. He had suggested to her husband to take their children to the village for purification, a term for FGM. Her husband accepted the proposal and a date was fixed. And to save her daughters, she fled home with them. As it is with rape, many cases of this nature are not reported in Nigeria. Like Ewheredo's wife, many girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
In Africa, about 3 million girls are at risk of FGM annually. Experts argued that the procedure has no health benefits for girls and women. To be sure, adverse consequences of FGM include pain and haemorrhage, infection, acute urinary retention following such trauma, damage to the urethra or anus as victims often struggle during the procedure making the extent of the operation dictated in many cases by chance, chronic pelvic infection, acquired gynatresia resulting in hematocolpos, vulval adhesions, dysmenorrhea, retention cysts, and sexual difficulties with anorgasmia. Other complications are implantation dermoid cysts and keloids, and sexual dysfunction.
Obstetric complications include perineal lacerations and inevitable need for episiotomy in infibulated paturients. Others are defibulation with bleeding, injury to urethra and bladder, injury to rectum, and purperial sepsis. Prolonged labour, delayed 2nd stage and obstructed labour leading to fistulae formation, and increased perinatal morbidity and mortality have been associated with FGM.
Accordingly, the mental and psychological agony of FGM is deemed the most serious complication because the problem does not manifest outwardly for help to be offered. The young girl is in constant fear of the procedure and after the ritual she dreads having sex because of anticipated pain and dreads childbirth because of complications caused by FGM. Such girls may not complain but end up becoming frigid and withdrawn resulting in marital disharmony. Consequently, a multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle this deep-rooted legendary practice of FGM.
Experts agreed that there is a need for legislation in Nigeria with health education to ensure liberation of women who still subscribe to the culture of FGM. "A coordinated campaign for social change in the communities where FGM is practised is essential. The battle to eliminate FGM is a long one, but it is a battle we must win," said Kingsley Odogwu, an expert on FGM.
"With improvement in education and social status of women and increased awareness on complications from FGM, most women who underwent FGM will come out to disapprove of the practice and no one would be willing to subject their daughters to such harmful procedures in the future. The more educated, more informed, and more active socially and economically a woman is, the more she is able to appreciate and understand the hazards of harmful practices like FGM and sees it as unnecessary procedure with a refusal to accept such harmful practice," he added.
In 1994, Nigeria joined other member state at the 47th World Health Assembly where they agreed to eliminate FGM. In that direction, the steps taken so far include establishment of a multisectoral technical working group on harmful traditional practices (HTPs), conduct of various studies and national surveys on HTPs, launching of a regional plan of action, and formulation of a national policy and plan of action, which was approved by the Federal Executive Council for the elimination of FGM in Nigeria not too long ago. But more is required, if government is keen on saving lives.