“THE CLITORIS IS A GIFT FROM GOD, WHY CUT IT”, says a statement on a poster hanging by the door of Safehaven International, one of the non-governmental organizations in Nigeria working on creating awareness of the dangers of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the passage of a bill to stop the barbaric practice.
Margaret Onah, 48 and the founder of Safehaven International, has been through this traumatic action and has vowed to keep fighting for women’s right and health. Her organization is committed both to going into various communities to enlighten women on the dangers associated with FGM as well as organizing advocacy visits with lawmakers to ensure the eradication of this traditional yet harmful practice. One of the approaches they are using to fight FGM is the Alternative rite of passage, which is a critically sensitive approach, one that respects the value of tradition but rejects the violation associated with it.
She recounts her ordeal: “I am from Cross River State, Nigeria. I’m the first child in a family of nine children, seven girls and two boys. All of us girls were subjected to this inhumane treatment. I remembered as a young girl of twelve crying my eyes out when no one seemed to be listening, and I also remembered hearing the women say, “we all went through it, now you need to go through it too”. After the procedure, I was depressed, had psychological trauma and I encountered difficulty with urination. Most times, I would be uncomfortable but refused going to ease myself because of the severe pain and agony urination caused. Each time, the question I kept asking myself was, must I, my sisters and every other girl go through this depression?”
MY EXPERIENCE My story is not unlike Margaret’s and countless other Nigerian women. Recently, I went to the hospital and I was shocked to my bones when the doctor examined me and asked questions like, “Were you circumcised?” I answered, “No, why do you ask doctor”, and he said, “Your clitoris isn’t there”. I was dumbfounded because I never knew I had been a victim all this time, perhaps, mine was done when I was a child. The incident got me thinking because I had had reproductive health issues and I wondered if it contributed to such health problems. I’m still wondering why I should go through things that have a potentially devastating impact on the girl child and womanhood. These are the sort of things that give women psychological and emotional trauma. God has been helping me get over that shock.
About fifty-five percent of women I interviewed have had one of the FGM procedures, and they all recounted their experience as being an inhumane barbaric violation of women’s rights and saw it as a practice that must be stopped. FGM comprises all procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. It has no health benefits and harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue and hence interferes with the natural function of girls' and women's bodies. The practice causes severe pain and has several immediate and long-term health consequences, including difficulties in childbirth that may cause dangers to the child. Usually performed by an elder woman under unsanitary conditions, the procedure is done with scissors, razor, blade, or knives without anesthetic. Once completed, the incision is usually held closed by thorns, and the girl’s legs are tied closed for three weeks. Such debilitating practices are as brutal as they sound and lead me to believe that this is affecting me and thousands of other women in Nigeria emotionally and psychologically and calls for an immediate action.
ATTITUDES AND BELIEFS: The Women's Centre for Peace and Development (WOPED) has concluded that Nigerians continue this practice out of adherence to a cultural dictate that uncircumcised women are promiscuous, unclean, unmarriageable, physically undesirable, and/or at risk to themselves and their children, especially during childbirth. One traditional belief is that if a male child’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the child will die, this has actually instigated the carrying out the practice.
THE PROCEDURE FGM is carried out with varying levels of severity depending on the community and religion and involves high degrees of violence against women in Nigeria. Type I, called the clitoridectomy, is the least severe form of the practice and involves the removal of the hood of the clitoris or part of the clitoris itself. Type II is a more severe practice involving the removal of the clitoris along with partial or total excision (removal) of the labia minora (the inner vaginal lips). Type III is known as infibulation and is the most severe form of FGM. It involves the removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and the adjacent medial part of the labia majora, and the stitching of the vaginal opening leaving an opening the size of a pinhead to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl’s or woman’s legs are generally bound together from the hip to the ankle so she remains immobile for approximately forty days to allow for the formation of scar tissue. Type IV includes the introduction of corrosive substances into the vagina. This form is practiced to a much lesser extent than the other forms in Nigeria. These procedures can take place anytime from a few days after birth to a few days after death. In Edo State, for example, the procedure is performed within a few days after birth. In some very traditional communities, if a deceased woman is discovered to have never had the procedure, it may be performed on her before burial. In some communities it is performed on pregnant women during the birthing process and accounts for much of the high morbidity and mortality rates. It varies among ethnic groups in Nigeria.
IMPLICATIONS FGM does irreparable harm. It can result in death through severe bleeding, pain and trauma and overwhelming infections. It is routinely traumatic. • It has dangerous health implications because of the unsanitary conditions in which it is generally practiced.
• It is a fundamental violation of human rights because it is carried out at a very young age when there is no possibility of individual consent.
• Circumcised infants, girls and women face irreversible lifelong health risks, among other consequences. Harmful effects include:
• Failure to heal • Abscess formation • Cysts • Excessive growth of scar tissue • Urinary tract infection • Painful sexual intercourse • Hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases • Reproductive tract infections • Pelvic inflammatory diseases • Infertility • Painful menstruation • Obstructed labor • Chronic urinary tract obstruction/bladder stones • Increased risk of bleeding and infection during childbirth. • Increased susceptibility to HIV/AIDS.
With over 250 ethnic groups and an estimated population of 150 million, a national estimate of this practice is very difficult to obtain. The most recent survey is a 1999 Demographic and Health Survey of 8,205 women nationally, which estimates that 25.1 percent of the women of Nigeria have undergone one of these procedures.
According to a 1997 World Health Organization (WHO) study, an estimated 30.625 million women and girls, or about 60 percent of the nation’s total female population, have undergone one of these practices. A 1996 United Nations Development Systems study reported a similar number of 32.7 million Nigerian women affected. According to a Nigerian non-governmental organization (NGO) coalition study, thirty-three percent of all households practice one of these forms.
However, the actual incidence may be much higher than these figures as stated by leaders of the Nigerian National Committee (also known as the Inter-African Committee of Nigeria on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children [IAC]) who have been conducting a state-by-state study of the practice.
Another survey carried out by the National Baseline Survey of Positive and Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting Women and Girls in Nigeria (Egunjobi: 2000), reports that the highest rates of FGM were found in Osun State (98.7per cent), Oyo State (96.8 per cent) and Ondo State (91.6 per cent), followed by Edo (74 per cent). In the southeast, the highest rate was found in Imo State (95.4 per cent); Abia and Anambra have rates of 82.4 percent and 75.5 percent, respectively. Significant rates were also recorded in the South-South, Cross River (93 per cent), Delta State (91.4 per cent), Akwa Ibom State (65 per cent), and Rivers (58.3 per cent). In Kano State, the rate is 55.5 per cent, in Kaduna State, it is 36.5 per cent and in Jigawa, it is 32 per cent.
Unfortunately, this traditional harmful practice has high prevalence in Africa but also happens on other continents. Nigeria was one of five countries that sponsored a resolution at the forty-sixth World Health Assembly calling for eradication of harmful traditional practices, including FGM.
Most NGOs working on this issue claim that helping traditional communities change their cultural folklore is necessary to end this practice. Proverbs, songs, theatrical and dance performances, and other cultural activities have reinforced this practice for centuries. The NGOs also point out that efforts to end the practice will fail unless Nigerian men learn that uncircumcised women are marriageable, will not be promiscuous, and are not poor risks as mothers.
HOW TO ELIMINATE FGM
• Call for legislative provisions and stern measures to prohibit the practice • Development of alternative sources of income for circumcisers • Strong advocacy campaigns against the practice nationwide by working with the media on information, education and communication campaigns that have an impact on the public’s understanding of, and societal attitudes to, FGM
In conclusion, I would say, the effect of FGM on me is devastating, I may not have had gynecological issues if I wasn’t circumcised and I’m trying hard to get over the hazards associated with it. Countless of other women are going through what I’m going through right now or even worse as a result of FGM and this calls for its urgent eradication. The eradication of FGM also calls for urgent attention in the context of HIV/AIDS as women are most vulnerable, the use of contaminated instrument in the operation could be an important mode of transmission. The risks are evidenced from the fact that the operation is mainly carried out by practitioners of traditional medicine and by traditional birth attendants using unsanitary knives and other instruments in generally unhygienic conditions. The transmission of HIV/AIDS is an obvious danger, alongside the usual gynecological and psychological problems associated with the practice. These multiple risks are compounded in the case of infibulations by the need to cut open the infibulated area for childbirth. Carried out with crude, unsterilized instruments and without anesthesia, the reopening operation causes intense pain and frequently results in infection and heavy bleeding and causing maternal & child mortality.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.Voices of Our Future 2012: Frontline Journals