Abolishing female genital mutilation

March 6, 2013  by Punch Editorial Board

THE high incidence of female genital mutilation in Nigeria should provoke stakeholders to take a quick and decisive action to end the terrible practice of inflicting blinding and searing pain on innocent girls.  That one-quarter of the 140 million girls and women estimated by the World Health Organisation to be living with FGM worldwide are in Nigeria makes the case for the eradication of the barbaric practice of cutting off some part of female genitals even more urgent. Of the 101 million girls of 10 years old and above estimated by the WHO to have undergone FGM in Africa, over 40 million are in Nigeria (with a 41 per cent prevalence). Indeed, Nigeria has the highest absolute number of FGM cases in the world. Our governments should be embarrassed that we lead only in those things that spell human misery, but are in the bottom rung of global rankings in those things that edify humanity.

While the government needs to adopt a more vigorous eradication programme, our diverse communities will have to overcome age-long habits that promote the terrible practice. In a report released last month to mark the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting, the United Nations noted some reduction worldwide in the life-threatening practice, but warned that significant numbers of girls and women in the 29 FGM-endemic countries, including Nigeria, were still at risk.

FGM or female circumcision (clitoridectomy, excision or infibulations) is based on traditional beliefs and societal pressure and “includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.” Across the country, but especially in the southern states, the practice is still rampant despite a series of, and many years of, public enlightenment on its dangers. The Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey 2003 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.

The sad irony is 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 is absurd. A joint statement by the World Health Organisation, UN Children’s Fund and UN Population Fund says “culture is not static but it is in constant flux, adapting and reforming.” People should be ready to change their behaviour when they understand the hazards and indignity of harmful practices and when they realise that it is possible to give up harmful practices without giving up meaningful aspects of their culture. WHO details the gruesome practice as the partial or total removal of the external female genital and/or injury to the female genital organs.

According to clerics, 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?  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 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. For the infants, young girls and women who are subjected to the dehumanising 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-sterilised instruments. It is reported that FGM 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, emphasising the need for concerted action by all sectors – health, education, finance, justice and women’s affairs.  UNICEF, UNFPA 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 mobilise resources to step up the anti-FGM campaign. Remedies should include passing legislation criminalising FGM. 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 FGM eradication measures with as much vigour as the polio immunisation programme. 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.

Parents and guardians should remember that FGM has no single health benefit, but is always harmful; it has no basis in religion as erroneously thought; it does not even discourage promiscuity, but often condemns women to sexual frustration when married. They should, therefore, protect the precious gift of children by strictly steering clear of female circumcision. Non-governmental organisations should intensify their remediation activities in this regard.