AMINA BRAI OMOIKE
Till date, many African cultures, albeit, Nigerian, still practice female genital mutilation (also known as FGM) or female circumcision. Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
About 200 million girls and women alive today are believed to have been subjected to FGM and they live predominately in sub-Saharan Africa and the Arab States. However, FGM is also practiced in select countries in Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. It is also practiced among migrant populations throughout Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
A 2022 UNFPA report says that in Africa, FGM is known to be practiced among certain communities in 33 countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Certain ethnic groups in Asian countries practice FGM, including in communities in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the Middle East, the practice occurs in Oman, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, as well as in Iraq, Iran, Jordan and the State of Palestine.
In Eastern Europe, recent info shows that certain communities are practicing FGM in Georgia and the Russian Federation.
In South America, certain communities are known to practice FGM in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.
And in many western countries, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom and various European countries, FGM is practiced among diaspora populations from areas where the practice is common.
The resultant effects of this act range from severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that about 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, more than three million girls have been estimated to be at risk for FGM annually. In many cultures in Southern Nigeria, particularly the South-South region, FGM is carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 17.
According to Sandra Mbanefo-Obiago, the director of Communicating For Change (CFC), a non-governmental organisation, “FGM has to do with the removal – total or partial – of the female gentalia particularly the clitoris which is the temple of sexual pleasure. Cultures that practice it believe it stops young girls from being promiscuous since they invariably do not enjoy sex”. Sadly, this lack of sexual pleasure affects many women in adulthood making intimate relationships which their future lovers almost impossible.
In 2002, as part of the campaign to eradicate genital mutilation in Nigeria, the 90-minute documentary film entitled ‘Uncut – Playing with life’ was produced by CFC.
Stella Omorogie who was a traditional female circumciser said: “A woman who is not circumcised is a dog and in the olden days was a slave”. She inherited her job from her grandmother, a noted witchdoctor from a royal family in Benin, Edo state, but has since been persuaded to give up her trade and now works in Benin City as an ice-cream maker.
In some societies, female circumcision is a right of passage for girls into womanhood and some witnesses in the film, including economist Muhammed Ighile, condemned opposition to it as foreign propaganda.
The mother of a circumcised baby, Patience Sanni, said that she agreed to the practice “because of our tradition.” In some communities, it is believed that if a baby’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth either the mother or the child will die.
Female circumcision was banned in Edo State in November 1999 because of the risks of infection, but still continues.
FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. It is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed (type 3 above), the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage “illicit” sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
Sometime in 2011, popular blogger Linda Ikeji confessed that she didn’t enjoy sex owing to the fact that she was circumcised. She wrote in her blog: “I’ve never really enjoyed sex. And I blame it on the fact that I was circumcised. Some things were cut off, so there’s not much sensation down there. I mean, I enjoyed intimacy and when the tongue was at work but penetration was a different case. Half the time, I couldn’t wait for him to get off me. So usually, I tell myself why seek something you don’t particularly enjoy? What’s the point really? So I’ve basically just stayed away (from sex).”
Alec Godwin, the former husband of late gospel singer, Kefee also admitted that the sexual aspect of their three-year-old marriage was faulty because of FGM. He spilled that much in an interview saying that his wife (Kefee) often cried during sexual intimacy. “She told me that the fact that she was circumcised made her not to enjoy sex. I believed her. She would cry each time we made love. She would just lie on the bed and tell me to do whatever I wanted. I couldn’t be an animal, so I didn’t do anything with her most of the time. It was terrible. I told her we should see the pastor or a psychologist, but she said we shouldn’t tell anybody about such things”.
The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18 percent of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing. Female genital mutilation is usually performed without anaesthesia by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor or scissors which are not usually sterilised, which could cause infection to the wound.
Female circumcision takes place in four ways: Clitoridectomy which is the partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris), excision involving the partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina), infibulations which is the narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal.
Medical, this form of mutilation has zero benefits as it interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.
A health expert, Dr Tope Oyedeji of the Trinity Maternity Home and Health Centre, Osogbo , warned parents to stop female circumcision to avoid the health danger associated with the practice. She said the practice can lead to recurrent infertility, urinary and vaginal infections, chronic pain, fatal haemorrhaging, epidemic cysts and complications during childbirth.
Oyedeji observed that majority of parents were still circumcising their female children secretly. She said: “In the process of circumcision, there is a small hole which is left for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. The wound is opened for intercourse and childbirth, and has adverse effect in the future”.
In December 2012, the UN General Assembly accepted a resolution on the elimination of female genital mutilation. Previously, WHO had published a “Global strategy to stop health care providers from performing female genital mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.
Since 1997, great efforts have been made to counteract FGM, through research, work within communities, and changes in public policy. Progress at both international and local levels includes: wider international involvement to stop FGM; international monitoring bodies and resolutions that condemn the practice; revised legal frameworks and growing political support to end FGM (this includes a law against FGM in 24 African countries, and in several states in two other countries, as well as 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM practicing countries); in most countries, the prevalence of FGM has decreased, and an increasing number of women and men in practicing communities support ending its practice.
Research shows that, if practicing communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.
WHO efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation focus on: strengthening the health sector response: guidelines, training and policy to ensure that health professionals can provide medical care and counseling to girls and women living with FGM; building evidence: generating knowledge about the causes and consequences of the practice, how to eliminate it, and how to care for those who have experienced FGM; increasing advocacy: developing publications and advocacy tools for international, regional and local efforts to end FGM within a generation.
WHO is particularly concerned about the increasing trend for medically trained personnel to perform FGM. WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures.
Almost all women who have undergone FGM experience pain and bleeding as a consequence of the procedure. The event itself is traumatic as girls are held down during the procedure. Risk and complications increase with the type of FGM and are more severe and prevalent with infibulations. “The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life”, says Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Additional risks for complications from infibulations include urinary and menstrual problems, infertility, later surgery (defibulation and reinfibulation) and painful sexual intercourse. Sexual intercourse can only take place after opening the infibulation, through surgery or penetrative sexual intercourse. Consequently, sexual intercourse is frequently painful during the first weeks after sexual initiation and the male partner can also experience pain and complications.
When giving birth, the scar tissue might tear, or the opening needs to be cut to allow the baby to come out. After childbirth, women from some ethnic communities are often sown up again to make them ‘tight’ for their husband (reinfibulation). Such cutting and restitching of a woman’s genitalia results in painful scar tissue.
Mrs. Darlene Oreka recalls she suffered pre- and post-partum depression following the birth of her first child. “I got pregnant in my third year in University so we had to get married. Before the marriage, my mother-in-law insisted that for me to come into her family, I had to be circumcised as part of the family tradition. We fought against it but at the end, we succumbed to pressure. In the eight months of my pregnancy, my doctor was doing a routine check on me and was shocked to find out that I didn’t ‘have’ a vagina! The things had closed up following the circumcision. They had to perform a major-minor surgery on me to reopen the vagina before I gave birth. You can imagine how painful that was and how long it took to heal”, she said.
A multi-country study by WHO in six African countries, showed that women who had undergone FGM, had significantly increased risks for adverse events during childbirth, and that genital mutilation in mothers has negative effects on their newborn babies. According to the study, an additional one to two babies per 100 deliveries die as a result of FGM.