Why Female Circumcision Lives On

A victim in agony

In spite of the adverse consequences on those who pass through it, female genital mutilation is a cultural practice that has refused to die

|  By Vincent Nzemeke  |  Sep. 30, 2013 @ 01:00 GMT

CHIOMA Achi felt a severe pain surging through her body as the blade  slashed her body. She was already 15 years old and a student in a community secondary school in Abia State when she was forced by her mother to undergo female genital mutilation, FGM, which is popularly known as female circumcision.

Recounting the ghoulish experience, Chioma who is now a student at the University of Abuja, said the pain she felt made her weak for almost three days. “It is a very sad experience I wish I could erase from my memory. The pain I felt was so severe that I could not do anything by myself for three days. It is a very wicked thing to do but many mothers especially those in the rural areas still subject their daughters to it in the name of tradition.”

Zainab Maina, Minister of Women Affairs
Zainab Maina, Minister of Women Affairs

Marian Oti is another victim of female circumcision. Although hers was done when she was about eight years old in Anambra State, she still recalls the experience with some pains in her heart. “It was done by my grandmother and her friends. Two of them held me down while she used the knife to cut of something I don’t know. Even though I was young then, I still remember that it was a very painful experience.”

Female circumcision is one tradition that has refused to die in Nigeria. Even in this era of development, it is still practiced in many villages in various parts of the country. According to the World Health Organization, WHO, FGM is a procedure which involves partial or total removal of the external female genitalia and/or injury to the female genital organs, whether for cultural or any other non-therapeutic reasons.

It is widely recognised as a violation of human rights, which is deeply rooted in cultural beliefs and perceptions over decades across generations with no easy task for change. Though FGM is practiced in more than 28 countries in Africa and a few scattered communities worldwide, it is most common in Nigeria, Egypt, Mali, Eritrea, Sudan, Central African Republic, and the northern part of Ghana where it is practiced by various ethnic groups in the country.

With a population of about 170 million people with women accounting for about 52 per cent, it is said that Nigeria accounts for about one-quarter of the estimated 115–130 million circumcised women in the world. Although the recent report released by the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF, said the practice is on the decline, it still projected that FGM will affect 30 million girls over the next decade.

According to another report by the Nigerian Medical Association, NMA, FGM has the highest prevalence in the South-South Nigeria of 77 percent rate among adult women, followed by the South-East with 68 per cent and South-West with 65 percent. The NMA report also revealed that a national prevalence rate of FGM is 41 percent among adult women. The prevalence rate progressively declined in the young age groups and that 37 percent of circumcised women do not want FGM to continue.

Onyebuchi Chukwu, Minister of Health
Onyebuchi Chukwu, Minister of Health

According to Oti, she was told by her mother after undergoing it that circumcision would prevent her from being promiscuous. “My mother told me that what my grandmother and her friends did for me would prevent me from being a promiscuous girl. She also said that the FGM is traditional practice that has survived many generations because she also went through it.”

In some parts of Nigeria, the cut edges of the external genitalia are smeared with secretions from a snail footpad with the belief that the snail being a slow animal would influence the circumcised girl to “go slowly” with sexual activities in future. Despite efforts by government to discourage the practice, the FGM is still common in many parts of Nigeria.

Daniel Ewheredo shared a recent encounter in Edo state. “I travelled to my village in Igueben Local Government Area, Edo State, for my uncle’s burial with my wife and our four daughters. A day after the burial, I was summoned to a family meeting where the issue centred on the circumcision of our four daughters who were born in Lagos. I refused to agree to their terms and that led to a threat of kidnap and forceful circumcision of my children.”

Ewheredo said he took the risk to escape to save his children from what their mother suffered when she was forced to be circumcised on the eve of their wedding eight years ago. According to him, his wife hails from Agenegbode in Estako West Local Government Area in Edo State. He claimed that it is the tradition of his wife’s village that a woman must be circumcised on the eve of her marriage. He said that when he resisted the circumcision of his wife before their marriage, he was simply told that his wife will never have a child without the ritual.

Kayo Akpobore, an indigene of Delta State, also had a similar experience. She said she had to take her children to a relative due to the pressure of circumcision from her husband’s family. “They were insisting that I bring my two daughters for circumcision. When the pressure became unbearable, I had to take my children to my sister’s place in Port Harcourt.”

In Africa, about three million girls are at risk of FGM annually. Experts have argued that the procedure has no health benefits for girls and women. Rather, the adverse consequences of FGM include pain and haemorrhage, infection, acute urinary retention following such trauma, damage to the urethra or anus as victims often struggle during the procedure making the extent of the operation dictated in many cases by chance, chronic pelvic infection, acquired gynatresia resulting in hematocolpos, vulval adhesions, dysmenorrhea, retention cysts, and sexual difficulties with anorgasmia. Other complications are implantation dermoid cysts and keloids, and sexual dysfunction.

A process of female circumcision
A process of female circumcision

Obstetric complications include perineal lacerations and inevitable need for episiotomy in infibulated paturients. Others are defibulation with bleeding, injury to urethra and bladder, injury to rectum, and purperial sepsis. Prolonged labour, delayed second stage and obstructed labour leading to fistulae formation, and increased perinatal morbidity and mortality have been associated with FGM.

Accordingly, the mental and psychological agony of FGM is deemed the most serious complication because the problem does not manifest outwardly for help to be offered. The young girl is in constant fear of the procedure and after the ritual, she dreads having sex because of anticipated pain and dreads childbirth because of complications caused by FGM. Such girls may not complain but end up becoming frigid and withdrawn resulting in marital disharmony. Consequently, a multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle this deep-rooted legendary practice of FGM.

Experts have agreed that there is a need for legislation in Nigeria with health education to ensure liberation of women who still subscribe to the culture of FGM. Kingsley Odogwu, a medical doctor in Abuja, said:  “A coordinated campaign for social change in the communities where FGM is practised is essential. The battle to eliminate FGM is a long one, but it is a battle we must win.”

Titilope Adegoke, another medical practitioner at the government hospital, Asokoro, said the implication of FGM on a female child is grave. She called on stakeholders to help in the campaign to discourage the practice.

“If only people know the implications of FGM on a girl child, they will stop it. Fighting this barbaric culture requires the cooperation of everyone. We must come together to take the campaign against FGM to the rural areas where it is still very much in practice. The government alone cannot do it.”