Female Genital Mutilation: A matter of law enforcement or shift in cultural mindset?

By Heritage Sanmi-Lawal and the Research Team at Her Dream Initiative


In 2015, a ban was placed on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in Nigeria yet the harmful practice is still prevalent. Why does FGM continue to be practiced and is a legal ban ever enough?


FGM is generally "all procedures involving partial or total removal of the female external genitalia or any other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons". In Nigeria, it is usually undergone between eight days of delivery of the girl child to five years after birth.


FGM in Nigeria finds its root in misguided patriarchy and male domination. Nigerians who practice this act often boldly declare that it has been practiced from the 'times of our forefathers'. It raises the question of whether men insist on FGM as a form of equality since male circumcision is seen as the norm. What many don't know is that male circumcision does not have the same effects as FGM and that the act for women holds many more consequences. With over 19.9 million survivors, Nigeria, according to UNICEF, accounts for the third highest number of women in the world who have undergone FGM. Unfortunately, there are several reasons responsible for the occurrence of FGM despite it being a forbidden practice according to the law 


In Elekuru Ibadan, a South-Western City in Nigeria, the belief is that childbirth is easier and pain free only if genital mutilation has taken place. The cut can be done by traditional doctors in Ibadan for as low as 3,000 naira ($ 6). Many of the members in the community see the act as natural and that an attempt to stop such an act because of ‘civilization’ is diversion from a God-given instruction. In Edo, a South-South state in Nigeria, it is popularly believed that girls and women undergoing the cut will prevent them from being possessed by demons. Amongst some people from the Ibo tribe of Nigeria, females are being cut before marriage or birth of their first child due to the belief that it will prevent a premature death of the child to be born. On the other hand, the reason why FGM is performed in Northern states includes a mix of sociocultural factors. Where FGM is the norm, the societal pressure as well as the fear of being rejected by the community, are strong motivations for the act to continue. Female circumcision as it is sometimes called, is associated with cultural ideals of modesty and femininity. The belief is that girls are clean and beautiful after the cut of parts that are unclean. There have also been traces of religious support, however, no religious script has expressly dictated or prescribed the practice.


Needless to say, the consequences of living with genital mutilation are too dire to be justified with myths and traditions. Asides from injuries of different grades to the female reproductive organs, girls and women face emotional trauma and damage from the excruciating pain and humiliation faced during the act. Most women who go through the process have their sexual and reproductive health greatly tampered with. Now, there seems to be more concern since the banning of FGM in Nigeria took place. This is because before the ban, the process of cutting could be done in hospitals. Now, unqualified practitioners, traditional chiefs and native doctors perform the cut in the most barbaric and unhygienic manner; using old blades and overused knives with charcoal powder to stem the bleeding.


What then is the way forward? The Violence against Person Prohibition (VAPP) Act, a national legislation enforced in 2015 banned the act of female genital mutilation. However, the Act is yet to be domesticated in all the 36 states in Nigeria. At Her Dream Initiative, we call on Nigerian policy makers to ensure that all states sign into law the VAPP Act as a first show of seriousness towards ending FGM. Secondly, there is a need to massively promote awareness and education in almost all parts of Nigeria especially states with the highest numbers of women who have undergone FGM. This education needs to prioritize and highlight the consequences of FGM on girls and women and this will also require promoting the medical and factual effects of FGM. Thirdly, more efforts need to be put into the reporting of accurate data in Nigeria as this will help lawmakers and policy--makers ascertain how effective their directives have been; including how and where to intensify their directives. While reports and statistics show levels of FGM in certain states, it is difficult to obtain grass root report and this must be addressed by reporting FGM cases on a more specific level.


All these suggestions may not yield radical results until we address the root of this issue which is the male domination in societies with men being major policy makers. Her Dream Initiative believes that encouraging girls to be in school, celebrating women leaders and championing women in various sectors of the economy will go a long way in eradicating harmful practices against women and girls. This is because the situation is bound to change when women are actively involved in decision making across society. International Women’s Day is an avenue to celebrate women who have attempted to change the status quo while encouraging women to continue to break glass ceilings and take their place in leadership, politics and law enforcement. Truly there is no better time than this, for women to speak up against discrimination and harmful practices, advocating through every means for the promoting of women’s rights. Only then will Female Genital Mutilation in Nigeria be a thing of the past.


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