Two days ago, Nigeria took a momentous and historic step toward ending institutionalized violence against women and girls by outlawing female genital mutilation (FGM). Outgoing Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathon, signed the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015 into law after the bill was passed in the Senate on May 5. The law now prohibits female circumcision and mutilation, forceful ejection from your home and other widowhood practices, abandonment of spouse and children, battery, forced isolation, and economic abuse.
FGM is a long-standing custom all over the world, but is concentrated in the Middle East and Africa. Traditionally, FGM is a means to safeguard virginity in young girls, eliminate sexual promiscuity, protect female modesty, guarantee chastity, and at times initiate girls into womanhood.
In Nigeria all major ethnic groups, excluding the Fulani, practice FGM. The most prevalent type of FGM practiced in Nigeria is Type I (removal of the hood of the clitoris and all or part of the clitoris) and Type II (removal of the clitoris along with partial or total excision of the labia minor) and affects very young girls with no possibility of the girls’ consent to the procedure.
Other types of FGM include Type III (removal of the clitoris, the labia minora and adjacent medial part of the labia majora and the stitching of the vaginal opening) and Type IV (making small cuts, pricking, piercing, or incision of the clitoris and/or labia, scraping and/or cutting of the vagina, stretching the clitoris and/or labia, cauterization, the introduction of corrosive substances and herbs in the vagina).
Unsurprisingly, the health consequences following FGM are as serious as the procedure is cruel. Adverse effects include shock from trauma (no anesthetic used), hemorrhage, infection, acute urinary retention (an inability to pee even though the bladder is full because the urethra was damaged as the patient struggled during the operation), chronic pelvic infection, inability to reach orgasm, more painful menstruation, infertility, expected episiotomy during birth, expected prolonged 2nd stage labor, open sores, and increased perinatal morbidity. However, the mental suffering and fear associated with women who have undergone FGM is the most devastating consequence.
FGM is recognized worldwide as an egregious and tortuous violation of human rights for women and girls. While some believe tribal traditions should be protected and maintained to save the customs of marginalized or minority groups no matter what, the women and girls who are forced—without option—into FGM declare the opposite.
According to UNICEF more than 130 million women have experienced FGM within Africa and the Middle East. Each of these women has lost part of their body without voice or choice because of customs that propagate and substantiate the idea that women (especially women’s sexuality) need to be controlled by men—a belief present in almost all patriarchal societies. Finally, the women and girls of Nigeria have the legal protection against an inhumane and degrading sexist custom, but the real success will be when the community no longer seeks a way to curb or eliminate female sexuality as a response to challenging male ego and power.
As Nigerians begin to negotiate the cultural complexities of implementing a law that prohibits a widespread custom, the immediate goal is protecting women and girls from violence in the public and private spheres. If Nigeria benefits as a whole from the elimination of FGM hopefully countries such as Egypt, Somalia, and Djibouti (where almost all women have experienced FGM) will follow Nigeria’s example and begin to protect their women and girls from the physical and psychological scars of maintaining the ego of a patriarchal society.
Image credit: public domain from creative commons
Photo Credit: UK Department for International Development