Warning by the Federal Government that practitioners of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) would henceforth face trial and may be imprisoned for four years and/or fined N500,000.00 cannot be more timely and appropriate, considering the very harmful effects of the practice on hapless girls and women.
Genital mutilation is considered to be one of the most controversial and not-so-widely discussed harmful traditional practices (HTP); and though it is outlawed, has endured. For its tenacity to survive threats and campaign against it, the government will need to go beyond its warning and intensify public education and mass enlightenment, to eradicate it completely.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO), FGM comprises all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons. This is recognised internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. On February 6, 2003, Stella Obasanjo, the then First Lady of Nigeria and spokesperson for the Campaign Against Female Genital Mutilation, made the official declaration on “Zero Tolerance to FGM” in Africa during a conference organised by the Inter-African Committee (IAC) on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. Then the UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights adopted an international awareness day on FGM to turn global searchlight towards eradicating it; and in 2012, the UN General Assembly designated February 6th as the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation, with the aim to amplify and direct the efforts on the elimination of this practice.
Although FGM, also referred to as ‘‘female circumcision’’ is a universal problem practised in some countries in Asia and Latin America; it is primarily concentrated in 30 countries in Africa and the Middle East. The UN notes that globally, it is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. The practice is declining in many countries. But the global body warns that at its current levels, with rapid population growth in countries where it is concentrated, it will significantly increase the number of girls subjected to it.
In Nigeria, the 2018 NDHS states that 20% of women age 15-49 have been circumcised; and 19% of girls age 0-14 are circumcised. Specifically, during the sub-zonal media briefing in commemoration of the 2019 International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM, organised by FGN/UNICEF Programme of Co-operation (2018-2022), as part of the UN’s efforts to eradicate FGM; the Chief of Field Office, UNICEF, Enugu, Dr. Ibrahim Conteh stated that statistics indicate that the country ranks third highest among practising countries in the world. Although Dr. Conteh explained that some of the state governments have good policies and laws, they have been slow in follow-up and implementation.
Female genital mutilation is one of the traditional rituals that prepare girls for womanhood and is being fuelled by myths, preconceptions and diverse ignorance about social expectations. It nonetheless remains a violation of women’s reproductive rights, puts their lives at risk and is harmful to their unborn children. To many people and groups across the belt of Africa, FGM is considered variously a cleansing ritual, a female rite of passage, a guarantor of chastity, a boost to fertility, or to male sexual pleasure and a cure for ‘‘sexual deviance.’’
Although some Africans defend it in the name of cultural tradition, females who undergo FGM face long-term physical, psychological, emotional, mental and social consequences as FGM leads to complications like severe pain, urine retention/painful urination, menstrual problems, keloids, shock, genital tissue swelling: due to inflammatory response or local infection, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), obstetric fistula, perinatal risks; and psychological consequences. Death can be caused by infections such as tetanus and haemorrhage and psychological consequences.
Furthermore, FGM violates the human rights of women and girls, contravening established principles, norms and standards including non-discrimination on the basis of sex; the rights to health, physical integrity and life; the right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the rights of the child.
In 2015, world leaders overwhelmingly backed the elimination of FGM as one of the targets in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, calling for an end to FGM by 2030 under the goal of Gender Equality and elimination of all harmful practices. This goal is achievable and Nigeria must act now to translate that political commitment into action. To eliminate FGM, coordinated and systematic efforts are needed, including at the national level, new policies and legislation protecting the rights of girls and women to live free from violence and discrimination. Government should ensure the integration of female genital mutilation in humanitarian and post-crisis response, particularly in the North East.
Given that societal pressures often drive the practice, individuals and families need more information about the benefits of abandoning it and the media should sensitise them. Campaigners against FGM should focus on human rights, gender equality, sexual education and attention to the needs of women and girls who suffer from its consequences. Meanwhile, religious leaders should strike down myths that FGM has a basis in religion. Since the practice is a source of livelihood, government and corporate bodies should organise skills acquisition programmes for the practitioners in order to equip them with the necessary skills to take up other legitimate means of livelihood and quit the barbaric act.