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Female circumcision

By Grace John Ifunanya

Introduction

Over the years, the debate for the propriety or otherwise of female circumcision has gained global prominience. Whereas the proponents of the practice justify it as a religious duty which helps to limit sexual promiscuity of women, opponents of the act condemn it as a physical assault on women, hence, for them, the practice equals to vaginal mutilation.

 

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

It is the partial or complete removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for non-medical reasons. It is practiced in Western, Eastern, and North-Eastern Africa, Middle East, and South-East Asia. 135 million women and girls as of 1997 are victims.

FGM is typically carried out on girls from a few days old to puberty. It may take place in a hospital, but it is usually performed without anaesthesia, by a traditional circumciser using a knife, razor or scissors. According to WHO, it is practiced in 28 countries in Western, Eastern and North-Eastern Africa, in parts of the Middle East and within some non-Eastern Africa.

Nigeria: – Female circumcision in Igboland.

The issue of female circumcision ranks high as one of the many cases of domestic violence in Igboland. It is seen as sure cure for sexual promiscuity among women. However, ancient folklore reveals how female genital mutilation helps to ward off certain kinds of diseases in women in the olden times.

Though considered as barbaric, the hygienic potentials of female circumcision commend it to successive generations of Igbo families. The superstitious impetus of female circumcision could not be lost on anyone who desires a deep knowledge of the practice in Igboland. It is believed that women who are not circumcised make love to spirits in their sleep who, in turn, cause unhealthy appetite for sexual intercourse.

It is also said that such women give birth to Ogbanje or Abiku like the Yoruba call it. With such unwholesome tales, out of fear and possible stigmatization, most mothers make sure that they circumcise their daughters.

Circumcision is done to arrest the interest and arousal for sex by the women folk and to avoid giving birth to children who would live for short periods of time, ie those that may die and come back to their mother’s womb only to be born and continue the cycle, bringing grief and pain to the family. In some instances, women who give birth to such children are regarded as having spiritual husbands and are thus, taken through a ritual bath. This ritual which involves taking the woman to a fast flowing river, attracts general feeling of sadness, against the mother for failing to circumcise her daughter during her childhood. Women who fail to circumcise their daughters are usually blamed for their negligence.

Attitude 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 potential health risks to themselves and their children, especially during childbirths. One traditional belief is that if a male child’s head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the child will die.

Methods of circumcision in women

1. The excision (removal) of the clitoral hood with or without removal of all part of the clitoris.

2. The excision of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl or woman’s legs are generally bound together from the hip to the ankle so that she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue.

3. The excision (removal) of the clitoris together with part or all the labia minora (the inner vaginal lip)

4. 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 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 childbirth process and accounts for the high morbidity and mortality rates, it varies among ethnic groups.

Highly respected women in the community, including traditional birth attendants (TBAs), local barbers and medical doctors and health workers usually perform the procedure. Unless performed in medical facilities, it is generally performed without the use of anaesthesia.

Outreach

Much is being done to combat this practice. The campaign against FGM has long been waged, for the most part, by international, national and non government organisation. People hold meetings and programs in both urban and rural communities throughout the country to inform the public about this subject. It uses videos, booklets and the mass media to reach school age children.

In 1997, outreach programs on the dangers of this practice were intensified. In the states of Osun and Bayelsa, nurses and midwives were trained about the harmful health effects and how to select, train and supervise TBAs. There was extensive community outreach to men, women, school children and health workers. Anatomical models, films and posters were used. Posters were distributed in villages.

Also actively campaigning against this practice are the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives, the Nigerian Medical Women Association and the Nigerian Medical Association. These three groups in particular are against the legitimization of this practice as a medical necessity for females and are working to inform all Nigerians health practitioners about the harmful effects of the practices.

The Nigerian Association of Nurses and Midwives created a national information package about the harmful effects of the various procedures.

WHO, UNDP, DFID of Great Britain and Danew of Sweden are actively funding Nigerian NGOs in addressing this practice.

Legal status

There are no federal laws banning FGM in Nigeria. Opponents of this practice rely on section 34(1)(G) of the 1999 constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that states, “No person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatments,” as the basis for banning the practice nationwide.

Edo State banned this practice in October, 1999. Persons convicted under the law are subject to a 1,000 Naira fine and imprisonment of six months. While opponents of the practice applaud laws like this one as a step in the right direction, they have criticized the small fine and lack of enforcement thus far. Ogun, Rivers, Cross Rivers and Bayelsa States have also banned the practice since 1999. According to my interview with some women on female circumcision, I have come to realize that women are no longer involved so much in it due to its danger on the children.

A woman, who wouldn’t want her name in print, told me how she lost her daughter due to continuous bleeding after the circumcision. Female circumcision has no medical backing and also has no religious backing.

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