Female genital mutilation: Dehumanising harmful traditional practices

A woman is only complete if she undergoes female circumcision –Ebonyi community women

Female genital mutilation (FGM), according to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is a procedure performed on a woman or girl to alter or injure her genitalia for non-medical reasons. It most often involves the partial or total removal of her external genitalia. The reasons behind the practice vary. In some cases, it is seen as a rite of passage into womanhood, while others see it as a way to suppress a woman’s sexuality. However, many communities practice genital mutilation in the belief that it will ensure a girl’s future marriage or family honour. Each year, around four million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing FGM, with most girls cut before the age of 15. Nevertheless, there has been significant progress made in eliminating the harmful practice, but more, UNICEF says, is needed, and quickly, to end it once and for all. ISIOMA MADIKE in this report looks at the awareness and attitude of women in some Nigerian communities towards FGM

Nkechi, 18, and native of Igbudu community in Ikwo Local Government Area of Ebonyi State, had no idea what getting cut or circumcised meant before it happened to her and four other young girls who were lined up and mutilated. They were forced to undergo the procedure without anaesthetic. She was just 12-year-old then.

They were told it was a practice that would make them purer and eligible to marry. Recalling that horrible experience, Nkechi said if she had known what was going to happen to her, she would have run away. But instead, she and the four other girls were led outside her father’s house one morning and told to sit on stones in a line facing the rising sun. “It was my mother that informed me of the need to undergo the cut. I really didn’t know what it was, but they told me I had to do it to become a full woman.

“She told me just the night before the incident. I don’t know whether or not the other girls knew about it and approved it,” Nkechi, who had never been to school or received any kind of education, managed to reveal this to this reporter. She, however, begged for anonymity for fear of being mistreated by her community. She added: “The women came to my home early in the morning. They got hold of me and forced me to lie down. My hands and legs were held firmly and I could hardly move. They then spread my legs and the village midwife started cutting. The pain was excruciating, and I was screaming uncontrollably. The woman continued cutting for what seemed like an eternity. I don’t remember how long it took, but I never imagined that I could experience such unbearable pain.” Nkechi’s eyes burn as she narrated but not with shame. It was something quite different: a kind of pride and self-assurance, fueled, perhaps, by memories of the horrific, life-changing experience that she went through a few years ago. In some other communities around Nigeria, the shame runs so deep that girls are taught to never look at or touch their genitals. Most of them have never been to a gynaecologist.

In many cases, women who were cut very young, and it is common practice to circumcise infants, do not even know they have been mutilated until they attempt to have sex, at which time they often need to be cut open again to consummate a marriage.

But, not in Isu in Onicha Local Government Area, where, like in Igbudu community where Nkechi and her friends had to experience such, is a common practice. Isu is like a primitive village. The only sign of modernity in this community are the two elementary schools, comprising mainly buildings that have seen better days. The natives too are primordial in appearance and conduct.

Though, they are traditionally peaceful, friendly, and accommodative. But, beneath this façade, lies a dark secret. Sadly, the beautiful attributes of Isu appear to have gone with the wind, as a revelation of this condemnable practice, still holds sway in this land. Nonetheless, the story of Isu has been one of endless and uninspiring backwardness, which the youth once attributed to the evil machinations of witches and wizards. For a small community like Isu, it is not difficult to identify a stranger. Little wonder, the visit of Saturday Telegraph to this land sometime in September 2022, caused a stir.

The people were unusually quiet. But, it was understandable since lots of negative stories have emanated from this land in recent times. This may be why a first time visitor to Isu has the problem of being mistaken for a security agent or a journalist. This partly explained why most natives of the community shy away from questions they consider probing and by extension implicating. Ironically, the ‘circumcised’ also appear to be under some kind of oath to nurse their pains secretly. They seem to havetaken their circumcision in good faith. However, an aged man, who identified himself simply as Chief Silas, broke the silence.

He takes pride in what he called an act of purity in his community. At well over 90 years and looking frail, Silas shook his head in disbelief as our reporter introduced his mission and reminded him of the dangers inherent in female circumcision. With a wry smile, the nonagenarian managed to mumble a few words in his little English. He narrated what he called a fallacy of facts and said that female circumcision was a practice handed down to them by their forefathers to prepare a girl for womanhood.

In between sips of palm wine from a well carved traditional cup, which he demanded before agreeing to talk, the heavily bearded great-grandfather with shiny gray hair like ancient Greek philosophers bared his mind to this reporter. Clearing his throat loudly the old man said, “female circumcision is regarded here as a rebirth; a new road to the ways of maturity, which heralds the beginning of adult life.” According to Silas, a young girl, ritually shaved and washed, sits in the darkness of a hut before a female who was to circumcise her surrounded by the family. A specially curved blade is used to cut away her clitoris and labia Minor. No anaesthetic is given; the only concession to the girl is that, unlike her male counterpart, she is permitted to express pain without dishonour. During the cutting, she screams in agony and appeals to her relatives to let her go, but they continue to hold her down, believing the procedure to be in her best interest. The circumcision completed the young girl resting in her family hut. At the end of the day, she is inspected by a female elder. If the circumcisor’s work has been carried out satisfactorily, the girl is free to resume her recuperation. If not, she faces the repeat of her earlier ordeal. In her weeks of recovery, she is secluded with her family and other initiates. Dressed in black and wearing a beaded band round her head, she is not allowed to be seen or spoken to by any man, other than immediate relatives.

She receives a gift of livestock to honour her new status and can now look forward to marriage and children of her own. Isu people believe that the female youngster who undergoes the torture of such an ordeal with courage will be able to endure the challenges of life and uphold the proud reputation of her community. She is taunted with insults by her friends to build up her resistance and expected to endure to prove her bravery.

She goes through a healing period of up to three weeks, a time that serves as a transition into adulthood. The girl remains in seclusion. Following this period of recuperation, she enters married life. For the Isu people, pregnancy out of wedlock is strictly a taboo. At the onset of menstruation, girls are circumcised and must leave their child-boyfriends to prepare for marriage with older men who are selected by their parents and who may be twice their age. A highly controversial issue in contemporary Nigerian society, female clitorectomy has been practiced by the Isu people for as long as history can recollect their existence. Without undergoing this painful ritual, a girl of Isu extraction will not be considered a woman in this neighbourhood, will not be permitted to marry and will not be able to bear legitimate offspring.

In like manner, an Isu girl who refuses this rite of passage will be ostracised from her community and alienated from her cultural tradition. Incidentally, Isu is not alone in this practice. Despite the awareness campaign against female circumcision otherwise known as genital mutilation, this practice still ranks high in most of the rural dwellers in Ebonyi State. Areas where it is prevalent are Ikwo, Ohaukwu, and Izzi; Afikpo North and South as well as Ishielu council areas. Investigations have also revealed that the age-long practice persisted in the state because of a high level of ignorance on the part of the people, nonchalant attitudes of government towards the issue, strong belief in cultural heritage, and the belief that uncircumcised females are highly promiscuous.

A resident of Igbudu community in Ikwo Local Government Area, Rebecca Anyigor, said the practice started years back and has become a norm. Anyigor affirmed that a woman is only complete if she undergoes female circumcision. “’we have been practicing this for a long time and it is good for the girl child. It will enable her to have sexual satisfaction and avoid prostitution.

When a girl is circumcised, she feels sexually satisfied when she gets married; there will be nothing like infidelity on her part,’’ she said. According to her, many girls and some married women jump from one man to another only when they are not circumcised. She claimed that lack of female circumcision on many girl children in the society gave rise to teenage pregnancy, prostitution and lack of sexual satisfaction. Anyigor condemned the move by the government to abolish the practice. “Yes, we are aware of the move put in place to stop female circumcision and we are watching to see how something which has become culture will be easily stopped. There has been various campaign to stop it but we still cannot see anything wrong about it.’’ Yet, Chinasa Oroke, in Ozibo Village, differed. She condemned the practice, referring to it as evil she has sworn never to support. ‘’I cannot cut the private part of my girl child in the name of circumcision. Why should I do that? People used to do it before but development has come and no reasonable mother will do that to her child. Government has been warning us against this practice and they have told us the danger which is true. I just hate the practice and I have been telling my daughters not to do that to their female children,’’ Oroke confided in this reporter. UNICEF and National Orientation Agency (NOA), Ebonyi State chapter, moved by the rising cases of female circumcision in the state recently embarked on state-wide awareness campaign against the practice.

The campaign tagged ‘’open community dialogue on the abandonment of female genital mutilation/ cutting practice public awareness programme,’’ concluded with the resolve by stakeholders of the communities involved to help curb the practice in their localities. In Ohaukwu during the campaign, the traditional rulers unanimously declared their support and pledged to desist from the practice.

They claimed they were not aware before now of the various health challenges it poses to their young girls and women and vowed henceforth to sanction any person found engaging in the unwholesome practice in the area. The traditional ruler of Amaechi Autonomous community, His Royal Highness, Eze Ignatius Elebe, said though the people of Ohaukwu inherited the practice as a cultural norm from their predecessors, they have decided to abolish it considering its numerous adverse effects on the people. He said: “We the traditional rulers in Ohaukwu Local Government Area having been sensitised on the negative effects of the practice, hereby declares our unanimous support to put a stop to the practice.” Dr. Emma Abah, state director of NOA, emphasised that the event was a forum created by UNICEF to dialogue with the people of the state on why the practice persisted despite previous campaigns against it.

He maintained that it was to further promote healthy living among the Ebonyi people. Also, the Chairperson, Child Protection Network, Mrs. Flora Egwu, enlightened the people on the dangers of the practice, describing female genital mutilation as a dangerous and potentially life-threatening procedure that causes unspeakable pain and suffering on the victims.

She listed some of the effects to include chronic pain, infections, increased risk of HIV transmission, anxiety and depression, birth complications, infertility and death. Egwu thereafter, called for collective decision by the people to abandon the practice, insisting that such will ensure that no single individual suffers such discomfiture. On her part, a representative of the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), Chidiebere Odo, harped on the legal implications of the act. She said: “Female genital mutilation is a fundamental violation of women’s and girls’ rights. It violates the rights to health and to physical integrity.

‘’Our children and women should be protected from harmful traditional practices to be free from injury, abuse and degrading treatment. Girls usually undergo the genital mutilation/ cutting without their informed consent, thus depriving them of the opportunity to make independent decisions about their bodies.’’ She warned that henceforth, no form of alteration should be made on the genitalia of any female child in the state, insisting that any such amounts to mutilation or cutting, which will be unacceptable. Ude Agwu and Mrs. Elekwa, UNICEF resource persons during one of the campaigns, reminded the people that the concerted efforts made by the organisation to put to an end to the harmful practice in their localities is for their good, especially as they are the people to suffer the effects accruing from the act, hence the need for them to take the messages serious. For Olurotimi Akinola, Gynaecologist and first vice president, Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics of Nigeria (SOGON), the health implications of genital mutilation depend on the degree of mutilation. Some could bleed to death while others could sustain injuries in their organs, damaged as well as have difficulty with their pregnancy and childbirth. “It starts with the immediate to the long-lasting. This is why we at SOGON are running advocacy against it for both medical personnel and others who are engaged in sustaining the harmful practice.

We have discovered that even some medical personnel indulge in it because of pecuniary gains and the argument that their socio-cultural background permits that. As far as we are concerned, it is wrong and there could not be any meaningful justification for such practice,” Akinola affirmed. Male circumcision is one traditional practice that has attracted several attention, the world over.

For a female, the process comprises all the procedures involving partial or total removal of the external genitals or other injuries to the girl’s organ whether for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. This recognition of the harmful effects of the practice led to the adoption of female genital mutilation in preference to circumcision, which suggests a misleading similarity to male circumcision. It is an age-long practice that cuts across nations, ethnic groups and socio- economic status.

The origin of the practice is not well known but it dates back to antiquity. Today, female mutilation is one of the several harmful traditional practices in societies where the needs of the woman are still subordinated to her male counterpart. The practice is described as a form of violence against women, which has caught across many societies of the world, especially in developed countries and Africa in particular. Currently, over 140 million girls and women, primary in African countries, are estimated to have undergone female genital mutilation. In Nigeria, one of the states where the practice is prevalent is Ebonyi.

This occurs commonly in its rural neighbourhoods where it is firmly anchored on culture and tradition not minding many decades of campaign and legislation against the practice. This has largely been attributed to the high rate of illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and low status of women in many of its rural neighbourhoods. The practice has also been recognised as a major reproductive health problem as well as dehumanising. It has, however, resisted change, especially in most of these communities and is said to have promoted the transmission of Human Immuno Virus (HIV) even as it results in painful coitus and complications among other side effects.

Additional report from UCHENNA INYA (Abakaliki)




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