The International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation 2019 marked recently provided yet another opportunity to reaffirm Nigeria’s dubious reputation for misery. By retaining its ranking as host to the third highest number of victims of FGM globally, amid other revelations, the sluggish pace of eradication efforts was exposed. Stopping the barbaric practice requires more concerted efforts by the three tiers of government and critical segments of the society.
A clarion call for concerted action by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, “to end FGM and fully uphold the human rights of all women and girls” should resonate with policymakers at all levels. With poverty level at a record high of over 70 per cent, female illiteracy averaging 55 per cent (over 70 per cent in the North) and the world’s highest out-of-school population for the girl-child, the Nigerian government should end the misery of our girls being subjected to genital mutilation.
FGM refers to procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to female genital organs for non-medical reasons. Curiously, experts agree that the primitive surgery has no benefits whatsoever for its victims; only multiple negative, harmful effects. According to the World Health Organisation, apart from removing and damaging healthy, normal female genital tissue, it “interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies” and these risks multiply with increasing severity of the procedure. Immediate complications include severe pain, haemorrhage, genital swelling, fevers, infections (e.g. tetanus), urinary problems and sometimes shock and death. In the long term, victims can suffer continuous menstrual pain, child birth complications and vaginal problems: for some women, their lot is pain during sexual intercourse and inability to achieve satisfaction with their partners; psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and low esteem ensue.
Sadly, Nigeria is one of 30 countries, located mainly in Africa, Middle East and Asia, where this practice, performed between infancy and 15 years, is endemic. Of the 200 million girls and women living with mutilation, at least 20 million are said to be in Nigeria, meaning that one in every 10 FGM victims is here. UNICEF projects that, at the current rate, 68 million girls worldwide are likely to be similarly violated between 2015 and 2030.
Solving the problem requires going to the roots and changing the narratives and mindset that justify this age-long unwholesome practice. Research by UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund has identified cultural and social factors for the continued practice in Nigeria and elsewhere. More intensive sensitisation in communities should be undertaken to dispel the erroneous belief that mutilating girls is a necessary step in raising and preparing a girl for adulthood and marriage. The widespread fallacy that it discourages promiscuity should also be dispelled. This notion especially, explains why the South-West and the South-East regions that boast the country’s highest literacy levels also have the highest FGM prevalence levels, with Osun State posting 76.3 per cent in a 2015 survey, followed by Ekiti with 71.2 per cent. South-East states also have high prevalence rates. In Oyo State, where 21 communities renounced the practice last December, six out of 10 women aged 15 to 49 were victims. In line with the 2008 UNFPA/UNICEF Joint Programme on FGM, the various ministries of health in collaboration with non-governmental organisations should work ever more closely with communities, traditional authorities and faith-based organisations to achieve a mass buy-in to eradication efforts.
There should be zero tolerance for formal sector health workers who perform FGM. The UNFPA complained recently that 13 per cent of FGM in Nigeria is actually undertaken by medical professionals, a crime deserving of both criminal prosecution and disbarment from professional practice.
Luckily, the UN and Western nations treat this as a human rights issue. Global impetus has also been given to the eradication campaign by the prevalence of FGM among immigrant communities in Europe and North America. At least 22 states in the United States have passed laws criminalising the practice, as have Australia, New Zealand, Canada and European Union member countries. Twenty-one other African states have also passed laws criminalising it, says the Centre for Reproductive Rights, a US-based non-profit.
Nigeria is making only slow progress, though the Goodluck Jonathan administration signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act in 2015 criminalising FGM, among other violence against women. Sadly, outside the Federal Capital Territory, only Anambra State has domesticated the law and very few prosecutions, if any, have ever been brought against perpetrators, despite its continued practice.
Since many also wrongly ascribe the practice to religion, it is crucial to work with faith-based organisations to acquaint their adherents with unassailable evidence that neither Christianity nor Islam prescribes it; in fact, the practice pre-dates the establishment of both faiths in FGM-endemic regions.
Aid agencies say that laws alone will not end the practice: more critical change agents are the political will to enforce legislation and persuasion. The federal and state governments should, like Western countries, see FGM as a human rights issue and accord priority to its eradication. Egypt, with second highest prevalence rate of 87 per cent, is achieving some success in reducing it among younger women. Civil war has hampered efforts to tackle Somalia’s case, with the world’s highest percentage of FGM at 98 per cent. A combination of resolute government action, pro-active policing and collaborative efforts with aid agencies is helping to change attitudes in Ethiopia, a study for the British Department of International Development has found.
All our 36 states should domesticate and rigorously enforce the law. We should, as recommended by the UN and relevant treaties, treat FGM as a violation of fundamental human rights of the child and women. There is also a need to amend the Child Rights Act to criminalise any form of mutilation and violence against school-age females and the law, passed since 2003, should be domesticated by the states that have not done so.