Dedicated to Nigeria's socio-political issues
October 3, 2007 - December 2, 2007
Female Genital Mutilation: Exploding The Myths
Ejiro Joyce Otive-Igbuzor
Center for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA)
April 13, 2006
The United Nations declared 6th February of every year the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation. That day came and rolled by quietly. There were pockets of activities here and there but to say the least, the issue of eradicating Female Genital Mutilation is yet to occupy its pride of place in development work and activism in Nigeria. It is demoralizing to note that even in the development sector, some programmers do not agree that there is something wrong with the practice. While many have argued that the word mutilation is a misnomer, others believe that since we are advocates of gender equality, women and girls should be circumcised just like men and boys. To another group, it is a religious rite that must be fulfilled. This article sheds light on the barbaric act of mutilation and its consequences. It also attempts to deconstruct the myths that tend to perpetuate the practice and draws attention to legal instruments that prohibit FGM and promote respect for women’s bodily integrity.
Let’s explore the pertinent question – Is FGM a correct terminology or a misnomer? Nigerians are highly religious and most of us agree that God created the female genital, including the clitoris, the most embattled tissue in the female body. The clitoris is the site of erogenous sensation and helps women to attain orgasm during sexual intercourse. Its equivalent in the male is the tip of the penis, not the foreskin that is removed during circumcision. The only operation in the male that can be equivalent to FGM is cutting off the tip of the penis. If anyone thinks that it is cruel, crazy or barbaric to cut off the tip of the penis in order to control men’s promiscuity, the same thing goes for FGM. FGM is a deliberate attempt to unmake what God has made. Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 5th ed, 1995 defines mutilation as disfiguring or injury by removal or destruction of any part of the body. Mutilation is thus an appropriate word as it depicts the physical, biological and psychological trauma that the victim feels throughout her lifetime. It also gives a sense of women’s potential morbidity and mortality when the irreversible operation is carried out.
Female Genital Mutilation is the cutting or removal of all or part of the female external genitalia. It covers a whole range of procedures including: Type I –referred to as clitoridectomy where the clitoral hood with or without all of the clitoris is cut off; Type II – excision of the clitoris with part or all of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips); Type III – Infibulation i.e. Excision of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora). This is followed by the stitching and narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small hole, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The wound heals with a solid scar. This is the most inhuman form of FGM. The closed up bride is cut open by her husband with a double-edged dagger on her wedding night. She is re-infibulated if her husband goes on a long journey, dies or she is divorced. It is also referred to as the Pharaonic circumcision. Infibulation is more widely practiced in Sudan, Somalia, parts of Ethiopia, Southern Egypt and Northern Kenya and in some parts of West Africa (Mali).
Type IV entails all other forms of mutilation that cannot be classified under the first three categories. It includes the introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina to tighten the opening and piercing of holes around the vagina in an attempt to decorate it. The World Health Organisation has included Gishiri Cuts in this category. This is the act of ripping the vagina to relieve obstructed labour or expanding the vaginal opening of a young girl in order for her husband to penetrate easily during sexual intercourse. Gishiri cut is a crude form of episiotomy but because the cut is usually done haphazardly, many girls have either bled to death or ended up with one form of morbidity or the other. This practice is common in the Northern part of Nigeria where child marriage is also prevalent in some communities.
In several communities, FGM is celebrated as a rite of passage to puberty. In some Urhobo communities of Delta State, the mutilated girl is decorated with beads and camwood (ohwa) and accompanied to the market place by her peers amidst singing and dancing to show off her beauty and supposed chastity and to announce her preparedness for womanhood / marriage. Throughout the healing period, she is treated to special meals to demonstrate the honour of having become respectable by subjecting herself to circumcision (Oyavwe). It is the pride of every parent to ensure that this act is inflicted on every daughter. Any daughter who refuses to cooperate is held down usually by hefty men while the circumcisor cuts away. The decoy of the supposed honour and dignity as well as the fear of rejection, stigmatization and violence makes many girls and women surrender their rights to bodily integrity.
The age at which FGM is performed differs from one community to the other. Amongst the Urhobos, it is mostly done at puberty. It is assumed that at this stage, the victim would not have had a chance to have sex and so has not experienced orgasm. The idea is to permanently destroy any potential to enjoy sexual intercourse. That way, she is likely to remain a virgin before marriage and a faithful wife in marriage. If a woman however gets pregnant before she is mutilated, she is promptly rushed to the circumcisor before delivery to ensure that the head of the baby does not touch the clitoris during birth. In some parts of Nigeria, it is done 7-8 days after birth or just before marriage. It has also been reported that if an un-circumcised woman dies in certain communities, the clitoris is cut off before she is buried.
Accurate figures are difficult to come by but it is estimated that 2 m women and girls are mutilated annually. This corresponds to over 6,000 girls per day and one in every 15 seconds. It is practiced in 28 countries worldwide including Nigeria.
The National Demographic Health Survey conducted by the National Population Commission in 1999 revealed 25.1% prevalence in the study group of 8,205 married women aged 15-49. Reports from other sources – WHO, the media and the academia estimate the prevalence of FGM at 36-60%. A state-by-state study of FGM conducted by the Nigerian Centre for Gender, Health and Human Rights (NCGHHR) between 2001 and 2002 reveals that one form or the other is carried out in nearly all states in Nigeria. This ranges from 5-7% in Taraba and Abuja, 20-60% in Yobe (20%), Sokoto (32%), Plateau (58%), Ogun (35%), Niger (40%), Lagos (30%), Kwara (60%), Kogi (25%), Imo (40-50%), Enugu (45%), Edo (40%), Cross River (60%), Bauchi (55%), Anambra (60%), and as high as 70-100% in Abia (70%), Adamawa (72%), Benue (95%), Borno (87%), Delta (90%), Jigawa (69-70%; Type IV), Kaduna (50-70%; Type IV), Kebbi (100%), Katsina (95%), Kano (80%), Osun (80-90%), Rivers (70%) (NCGHHR, Dec 2002).
FGM is characterized by and perpetuated through various myths that differ from one community to another. Some people believe that the clitoris is a poisonous organ that renders men impotent; if it touches the head of a baby during childbirth, the baby dies; It poisons the mother’s milk after childbirth;
uncircumcised women are unclean; bad genital odours can only be eliminated when the clitoris and labia minora are removed; an intact clitoris can cause neuroses in women; the clitoris can reduce fertility. Others claim that FGM prevents vaginal cancer. None of these claims is true.
FGM is a cultural practice hinged on superstition and perpetuated through stereotyping, stigma and discrimination, intimidation and violence. It is important to note that culture is dynamic. Today the entire world benefits from technological advances. We fly in planes, use cell phones, browse on the internet, use contraceptives or protective barriers for family planning and so on. We have stopped the slave trade (though trafficking still abounds). Once upon a time, we killed twins because we thought they were bad omen. We can stop FGM because medical science has proved beyond reasonable doubts that it is a harmful and senseless operation.
The health consequences of FGM are numerous. It results in severe / violent pain, shock, hemorrhage, urine retention, ulceration of the genital region, infection, septicaemia (blood poisoning), sexual dysfunction, cysts, keloids, difficult labour and infant mortality. It also results in
psychosexual and psychological health problems including anxiety, depression, infection (including HIV infection), neuroses and death.
FGM is certainly not a religious practice. It is not mentioned in the Quoran or Bible. The Bible in Gen 17: 10-14 speaks about circumcising every male in Abraham’s household. Muslims tell me that none of the Holy Prophet’s wives or daughters were mutilated. Beyond religion, male circumcision is an operation that makes medical sense in terms of hygiene and aesthetics. Studies have shown that the uncircumcised male is more likely to transmit HIV than the circumcised one. However, if it is not done aseptically, it could result in infection, morbidity and death. Cases of male children who bled to death as a result of circumcision abound. In any case, people have a right to decide whether they want to be circumcised or not. To buttress the fact that FGM is not a religious practice, reports show that while it is practiced in countries where the predominant religion is Christianity e.g. Ethiopia, Kenya; in multi-faith Countries and in some Islamic countries, it is not known in others (e.g. Jordan) and has been banned and re-banned in Egypt.
It is pertinent to note that there has always been a hidden agenda behind the practice of FGM from time immemorial. It is a grand plot to control women’s sexuality as a way of maintaining the power imbalance prevalent in our patriarchal society. The term sexuality according to an Internet source refers to the totality of being a person. It suggests our human character, not simply our genital acts and has implications regarding the total meaning of being a man or woman. Sexuality is concerned with the biological, psychological, sociological and spiritual variables of life that affect personality development and interpersonal relations. It includes one's self-perception, self-esteem, personal history, personality, concept of love and intimacy, body image etc
Sexuality has a strong link with power. It is socially constructed and unequal between men and women. In our society as in several others around the world, male sexual desire is lauded, given primacy and can be expressed openly. Our culture licenses male promiscuity. This permissiveness is so entrenched that men and boys who are not promiscuous are often chided as unmanly. In the local cliché they are termed woman wrapper or suegbe. It is therefore not surprising that despite all efforts to control HIV/AIDS in Nigeria, the epidemic appears to be spreading rapidly especially among young people.
In most parts of the world, women are mutilated to ensure that do not attain orgasm during sexual intercourse. The act is believed to kill sexual desire and promote chastity and fidelity but does FGM eliminate sexual desire? Not at all! Sexual desire is a natural phenomenon that involves the brain, the hormonal system as well as the genitals. Does it then make sense to cut off the brain in order to ensure fidelity? FGM could drastically reduce or eliminate sexual pleasure depending on the extent of mutilation. A school of thought believes that it could lead to sexual experimentation as some mutilated women try out new partners in search of orgasm. If FGM were to promote chastity and virginity, why is it that many of the female sex workers repatriated from Italy, Spain and Austria come from parts of Nigeria where girls are mutilated as babies. We need to understand that chastity and fidelity are virtues that have to do with values and self-esteem. In a society largely devoid of role models and where sex is unashamedly sensationalised through adverts and home videos, we can expect very little from the next generation.
In Africa, a high premium is placed on women/girls virginity, chastity and fidelity. While this is laudable, one cannot help but notice the flagrant use of double standards in inculcating societal mores and values. In a balanced society, should we not also teach men and boys morality and self-control? Do we not contradict ourselves when we license male promiscuity on one hand and apply all forms of violence and intimidation to ensure that women and girls are virginal? Can someone please teach our men and boys to stop violating our daughters? It is interesting to note that at the just concluded ICASA conference held in Nigeria, Dr Winnie Mandela along with several other participants stressed the fact that the African girl should abstain from pre-marital sex but said nothing about male chastity. With whom are men and boys supposed to experiment to prove their manliness? As one participant at ICASA asked, do they have sex with fellow men or rats? Recently, there was the case of the proposed virginity test in one of the states as a criterion for awarding scholarships to females. How would you measure virginity in males? As men and boys are positioned to buy, obtain or enforce sexual intercourse through violence including rape, can we blame the girls who happen to be victims? Men and boys are brought up to believe that sex is something that they do to women. Some men and boys tend to sexually abuse women and girls as a punitive measure. The frequency of rape in times of conflict and wars indicates that rapists feel a sense of morbid satisfaction with every conquest. The cases of rape in the Niger Delta and elsewhere during peace-keeping missions are very recent.
Most mutilations are done by women and men who have no knowledge of asepsis. It is important to note that even if it were done under aseptic conditions, it would still be wrong. FGM is an act of violence against women. It is an abuse of women’s fundamental human rights. It amounts to torture and inhuman treatment and as such violates Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). It also violates Art. 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which recognises the right of the child to the highest attainable standard of health. Article 19 of the CRC emphasises protection of the child from all forms of physical violence, injury, or abuse while Art 37 provides for the protection of the child from torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The CRC has been domesticated at the Federal level and at the level of some states in Nigeria.
FGM was high on the agenda at the Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995. Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Violence Against Women (1993) recognises VAW as any act that results or is likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation. In attempting to define violence against women, Article 2 lists – battering, sexual abuse of children in the household, dowry – related violence, marital rape, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), other traditional practices that are harmful to women, non-spousal violence, exploitation, women trafficking, rape, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, educational institutes and deprivation of women from enjoying all other rights. Nigeria is a signatory to these agreements. We are therefore not asking for something out of the blues. What we demand as a follow up to celebrating the International Day of Zero Tolerance of FGM as well as the International Women’s Day is for government and all stakeholders to deliver on the promises made through those instruments. It is embarrassing to note that donkey years after Nigeria ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), we are yet to domesticate it. As the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and her partners push for the passage of the CEDAW bill, we call on this present set of lawmakers to write their names in gold by supporting this move. Gender equality is much more than an academic debate. For women, it is a matter of life and death and no doubt the pivot on which achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is hinged.
This year, the International Women’s Day focused on the theme: Women in Decision Making and the discourses were basically around issues on women’s participation in the public sphere. There is the need to understand that a woman’s right to participate in decisions concerning her body and her life is fundamental and unless she has the space to do so, participation in the public sphere will remain a tall dream. The moral question is what right has anyone to cut off part of my body to suit their own purposes?
In 1984, the Nigerian arm of the Inter-Africa Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (AIC) was set up. AIC has continued to engage government and civil society. The Federal Ministry of Health, professional bodies including the Nigerian Medical Women’s Association and the National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives, the UN especially WHO, UNIFEM, UNFPA and UNICEF, Civil Society Organisations and donors such as USAID, US Embassy, DfID etc are actively engaging in outreach activities to stop FGM. Though the gains are slow in coming, the efforts are yielding results.
In 1997, 3 UN agencies, the WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA unveiled a joint plan to bring about a major decline in FGM within 10 years and to completely eradicate it within 3 generations. The plan focuses on educating the public and lawmakers on the need to eliminate FGM and to encourage every African Nation to develop and enforce National Plans to stop FGM. On 30th April, 2003, the Federal Executive Council approved a national policy and plan of action on the elimination of FGM in Nigeria. The bill on FGM which was pending before the senate until recently is reported to have been incorporated into the Domestic Violence Bill which is being packaged for presentation.
Concerted efforts have resulted in the passage of bills outlawing FGM in some states including Abia, Bayelsa, Cross River, Delta, Edo, Ogun, Osun and Rivers. Though bills have been passed by these states, the mild penalties stipulated demonstrate the level of our conviction about the criminality of the act. The FGM bill passed by the Delta State House of Assembly in April, 2001 stipulates 3 months imprisonment and a fine. The Edo State Bill stipulates 6 months imprisonment and a fine of N1,000 (One Thousand Naira only). For an irreversible act of barbarism that could kill or leave a life long trauma in its trail, the penalties appear too light. It is like saying that a woman’s life is worth N1,000. It is interesting to note that very few people at the grassroots are aware that these laws have been enacted.
One major challenge is the enforcement of the bills. In real terms, the forces of oppression and intimidation at the level of individual families are difficult to deal with and have never been tackled head-on by law enforcement agents in Nigeria. Besides, children are brought up to believe that their families will always protect them. They therefore tend to assume that whatever the case may be, their parents have their best interests at heart. It is thus not the usual practice in Nigeria to report parents to the police. Even where this is done, the Police is likely to dismiss it as a family affair. Like the UNICEF Executive Director, Ann M. Veneman asserted recently, ‘the most effective approaches to this issue have been found not by punishing perpetrators but through encouraging and supporting healthy choices’. There is dire need to educate parents, guardians, family, community members, women groups, circumcisors and the girls themselves on the health consequences of FGM. There is need to sensitize gatekeepers to take responsibility for protecting their daughters, sisters and wives. The laws are however very useful as they create an enabling environment for action.
In order to explode myths, dispel misconceptions and deconstruct stereotypes, we need the solidarity of traditional, religious and opinion leaders. Partnering with custodians of culture to disseminate factual information through folklore, music, drama and idioms would be beneficial. So also is the provision of shelter for girls and women who face threats of being mutilated.
One strategy employed with support from DfID has been the provision of alternative income sources for circumcisors. Prior to this, the circumcisors were sensitized to reject clients as well as pass on information on the negative consequences of FGM.
The Centre for Development and Population Activities (CEDPA) is a women-focused non-governmental and non-profit organisation whose mission is to equip and mobilize women for equality, an essential ingredient for building stronger families, communities and societies. CEDPA has been working in Nigeria since the mid-80s but the Nigeria Country Office was opened in 1995. We have 4 field offices – Calabar, Bauchi, Kano and Lagos with a headquarters in Abuja. CEDPA’s core strengths include capacity building, advocacy and social mobilization. CEDPA has projects across the 6 geopolitical zones of Nigeria. As a capacity building organization, we train community-based partners on financial management, monitoring and evaluation, program management etc. These partners then receive sub-grants for project implementation. Through projects like the 100 Women Group strategy, Partnership on Advocacy and Civic Empowerment (PACE) as well as the ACCESS and ENABLE projects all sponsored by the USAID, CEDPA has helped to build grassroots coalitions that still provide the platform for discourses on RH, HIV/AIDS, Democracy and Good Governance and eradication of Female Genital Mutilation. These structures coupled with our wide network of alumni and partners act as CEDPA’s backbone in all its programming.
Specifically, the 100 Women Group Strategy has been employed to harness the strength of Nigeria’s vibrant women’s non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations to form proactive coalitions. Each 100 Women Group is an assembly of 10-15 CBOs that come together to identify and address issues of common concern. Issues are first debated, prioritized and tackled at the Local Government level. If the need arises, such issues are taken to the state or as far as the national levels. This is a bottom-up approach that helps women build consensus around issues and ensures that the final agenda captures grassroots aspirations. The 100 Women Group strategy has been particularly successful in fostering the participation of women and women’s groups in traditional, political and legislative decision-making processes. One key example is the fact that in Cross River State, the 100 Women Group succeeded in getting a bill passed that banned female genital mutilation.
Currently, CEDPA is implementing community-based projects on HIV/AIDS, Reproductive Health, Education and Youth Development through the support of key donors including USAID (through GHAIN, an FHI-led consortium), the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Ford Foundation and ExxonMobil. It is our goal to join forces with key stakeholders to empower families, communities and societies to protect their daughters from FGM. Our wide array of partners include Faith-based Organisations, HIV/AIDS support groups, NGOs, CBOs, CEDPA Alumni, Community Health Extension Workers, Traditional Birth Attendants, Peer Health Educations, Safe Motherhood Volunteers and Safe Motherhood Advocates in local communities including Agbowa in Lagos State, Minjibir in Kano State, Gwoza in Borno State, Bokkos and Mangu in Plateau State. We also have partners in Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Anambra, Edo, and Bauchi states as well as the FCT. Much of our work focuses on creating demand for HIV/AIDS services through community mobilization and advocacy, increasing access to high quality family planning services, reducing maternal morbidity and mortality through the elimination of 1st and 2nd delays, mainstreaming gender into HIV/AIDS programming and providing life skills education to out of school youth through our holistic youth development strategy called the Better Life Options and Opportunities Model (BLOOM). In all our projects, CEDPA will empower staff and partners to give factual information on FGM as well as engage in community mobilization and legislative advocacy.
Undoubtedly, FGM is a challenge that we must individually commit to eradicate. For instance, I have one beautiful daughter who trusts my husband and I to protect her and we have vowed to do just that. She is one Nigerian delivered from the barbaric act of mutilation. In addition, we will sensitise the parents of the other girls in our home to ensure that they do not impose FGM on their daughters. How many parents, guardians, aunties, uncles, village heads, Obas, Emirs, Pastors, Imams etc can make this commitment? We collectively owe it to the next generation to deliver them from the evil clutches of an inhuman tradition. Otherwise posterity will judge us harshly.
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