As female circumcision the same as female genital mutilation (FGM)? That conceptual mix-up is all too apparent in the latest campaign against FGM, courtesy of a National Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) 2013, just released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). According to Dr. Yakubu Aliu, UNFPA’s head in Cross River State, one out of every four Nigerian women, between the ages of 15 and 49, has undergone FGM.
But the surprise in the stats, from the NDHS document, is both the spread and prevalence of the practice. Whereas conventional reportage in the media seemed to suggest FGM was mainly a northern crisis, this latest survey shows it is indeed more prevalent in the South — if not the crisis, then the practice.
Here is the FGM geo-political prevalence spread, according to the NDHS document: South West, 56 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. Yet, there is little, if any, record; of any corresponding FGM epidemics, in hospitals and other health centres, public or private, in these southern states, where FGM is allegedly prevalent!
That is the first major alarm that what UNFPA categorised as FGM is no more than widespread female genital circumcision, which though many health sources have said is injurious to the girl-child is, as a cultural practice, still well entrenched, in the prevalent areas.
Indeed, from the spread, it would be clear female circumcision is still a core culture in the Yoruba and Igbo heartlands. Yet, these areas are educated as any in the comparatively more educationally advanced Nigerian southern belt. In comparison, the practice fades into insignificance in the generally educationally challenged northern belt which nevertheless, at least from media and medical reports, has a higher FGM epidemic record, than the southern belt.
The simple interpretation of all this is a classic clash between culture and modernity. But whatever the grievous implication of female circumcision for the girl-child, it cannot be curbed by demonising or criminalising an entrenched people’s culture.
Still, please note: the clash between “culture and modernity” here would appear no more than a not-so-subtle advocacy, to impose the disapproving Western-European view of female circumcision. Even if that were the way to go, it cannot be pushed through, without first understanding and then adjusting the cultural base, from which the practice issues. That seeming willful denial would appear the major problem with the FGM campaign; and that is why UNFPA needs to tweak its campaign message, starting with the most basic concepts, to be sensitive to the recipient culture.
To start with, female circumcision doesn’t equal female genital mutilation. It is only when circumcision goes awry that it ends in mutilation. If the act is rooted in culture, even among a segment that counts as one of the more modern in the country, the first logical thing would be to put in place, at any given time, a core of experts, who can safely conduct the genital surgery. That at least assures that every girl-child, going through that surgery, is in safe hands.
While doing that, however, UNFPA, with the Nigerian health authorities, could mount a culture-sensitive campaign that points to the health hazards of female circumcision.
In the coastal Yoruba states of Lagos and Ogun, male circumcision is routine, as in the rest of Yorubaland. But female circumcision is almost forgotten. Nevertheless, the story, in the more conservative Yoruba hinterland, of Osun, Ekiti and Oyo, specifically mentioned in the study, is markedly different. In there, female circumcision remains a sacred ritual, without which the girl-child is not culturally complete. That would also appear the position in the South East, from the prevalence rate in the NDHS 2013 document.
Such an entrenched culture can only be unhorsed by free and voluntary renunciation, as has happened in much of the Yoruba coastal states. This is more so, when to believers, female circumcision ensures the girl-child would grow into a chaste woman — the first barrier against sexual promiscuity, which could prevent sexually transmitted infections. That is culture shaping science. Sexual discipline would also ensure matrimonial integrity, which should guarantee stable homes and a peaceful society. That is culture projecting social harmony.
Therefore, only comprehensive moral suasion, fired by systematic and sustained public health education and enlightenment, can deliver such a huge cultural change, with all its built-in but not-so-apparent benefits. But you cannot do that by first rubbishing the cultural belief, no matter how crude, of the target population. That would only earn defensiveness and avoidable stone-walling.
Which is why everyone involved in this campaign must change tack. From what we have learnt, the girl-child can do without circumcision. And if prevention is better than cure, as indeed it is, without female circumcision, the chances of FGM is probably zero. Such simple, logical and culturally non-offensive messages could go a long way to changing set cultural attitudes for eons. But then, there can’t be a quick fix.
Meanwhile, the government should offer institutional support to parents, who would rather not circumcise their girls but are being muscled to do so, via crude threats, ancestral curses and other rogue methods. The Guardian newspaper mentioned such cases in one of its FGM reports.
A change of strategy is a better route than the present demonisation, stigmatisation, and scare-language, in a wholesale condemnation of female circumcision, when the real culprit is FGM.