Combating harrowing effects of FGM on women, girls

February 6th is International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), a campaign which highlights the need to end this harmful practice that negatively affects women’s health and lives. ENE OSHABA, in this piece, underscores roots and impacts of FGM, emphasizing urgent need for total eradication.

The International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), observed annually on February 6th, serves as a poignant reminder of the ongoing battle to eradicate this harmful practice and uphold the rights and dignity of women and girls worldwide.

FGM, also known as female circumcision or cutting, predates recorded history and has been practiced in various cultures and regions around the world.

Its origins are rooted in social, cultural, and religious beliefs, often perpetuated by patriarchal norms and the desire to control women’s sexuality.

Despite its long history, FGM gained global attention in recent decades due to increased awareness of its severe health consequences and violation of human rights.

The impact of FGM extends far beyond physical harm, inflicting deep psychological and emotional scars on its victims.

The procedure, often performed without consent and under unhygienic conditions, can lead to severe pain, infection, infertility, complications during childbirth, and even death.

Moreover, FGM perpetuates gender inequality by denying women and girls autonomy over their bodies and perpetuating harmful stereotypes about female sexuality.

Despite the UN calling for the worldwide elimination of FGM by 2030, many countries including Nigeria still do not have adequate laws and policies in place to protect women and girls.

FGM and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation; physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere; trafficking women and forced prostitution continue to persist and condoned by the state.

UN’s research

According to research by the UN, each year, over 200 million women and girls alive today have experienced genital mutilation.

“In 2024, 4.4 million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation worldwide. Nigeria has one of the highest rates of FGM globally, affecting around 20 million women and girls (UNICEF).

“FGM is deeply entrenched in cultural beliefs and traditions in many Nigerian communities, often perceived as a rite of passage into womanhood,” said UN Women Nigeria.

Surviving

Narrating her harrowing experience, Lola Ibrahim shares a touching story as a survivor.

Born in Gusau, Zamfara state, Lola’s upbringing was marred by the harmful tradition of genital mutilation.

For over 50 years, she grappled with the physical and emotional scars inflicted upon her.

“Let me share a deeply personal story with you. When I was just one-year-old, my mother faced a profound dilemma rooted in tradition.

“It was the moment when she took me to my paternal grandparents, and my grandmother, in adherence to the age-old custom, urged her to have me undergo a certain procedure.

“’Why?’ I innocently asked. ‘Tradition,’ was the solemn response. This tradition, passed down through generations, held sway. Despite my mother’s education and awareness, she yielded, not out of ignorance, but out of respect for familial expectations.

“Curious, I later questioned her about the benefits they derived from perpetuating this ritual. ‘Akobo,’ she said, her voice heavy with the weight of societal judgment.

“Being labeled ‘uncircumcised female’ in Yoruba culture carries immense stigma, a scar on one’s reputation that could hinder acceptance and prospects. It was a matter of pride, of conformity, ingrained in the fabric of their beliefs.

“Reflecting on this, I realised that my mother’s decision, though fraught with consequences, stemmed from a place of love. Yet, the repercussions were far-reaching.

“I endured the physical toll, multiple cesarean sections, painful experiences, and witnessed the struggles of friends whose marriages faltered due to the aftermath of the cut. The pain, both physical and emotional, ran deep,” she declared.

Is FGM curable?

In the heart-wrenching journey of survivors of FGM, one question echoes through the shadows: Is there a cure? The truth is stark and unyielding. FGM leaves scars that cannot be erased.

For those who bear the burden of this silent agony, FGM is not just a physical wound, it is a disability, hidden from sight but etched into every aspect of their lives.

The misconception that mutilating a woman’s genitals will curb her promiscuity only perpetuates a cycle of suffering. Instead of quelling desire, it ignites a fire of longing, driving women into a maze of desperation in search of fulfillment.

“There is no way to cure FGM, the only alternative is to go for restorative surgery which is very expensive. Once that part of the body is removed it is gone forever and for me it’s a form of disability, an unseen disability.

“If you remove part of a woman’s genitals you have removed it forever and as they say it is done to reduce the woman’s promiscuity but you may end up encouraging her to promiscuity by cutting her.

“When she doesn’t find sexual satisfaction with one man, she is likely to try many other men and that which you are trying to control you end up not controlling,” said Lola.

As survivors like her bravely step forward to share their stories, they shatter the suffocating veil of stigma and shame.

In the darkness, there is a flicker of light. Their voices resonate with countless others, offering solace and solidarity to those who have suffered in silence. Through their courage, a path emerges, one of empathy, understanding, and support.

But the journey does not end with disclosure. Many survivors grapple with profound mental and physical challenges, their wounds extending far beyond the surface. It is here that the importance of connection and compassion becomes clear. Expectation is that by linking survivors with the expertise and care they need, whether from doctors or mental health professionals, they are offered the chance to heal, to reclaim their bodies, and to rewrite their stories.

“When I started sharing my story people identified because that stigma and shame was a huge burden, but my speaking up emboldened a lot of people because they realized that Lola was cut too, and they began to share their stories then I began to find out what exactly was their problem. “The few victims I have spoken to usually have mental or health issues and challenges, we link them up to relevant experts like doctors or mental health experts to help them.

“In the face of such adversity, the resilience of survivors shines brightly, a beacon of hope in the darkness. And as their voices join together in a chorus of strength and solidarity, they pave the way for a future where FGM is not just a chapter of pain, but a testament to the power of courage, compassion, amidst her anguish, there lies an opportunity for understanding and healing.

“By unraveling the layers of tradition and confronting the why behind the what, she found solace and closure,” she added.

Speaking further she said it was a journey towards reclaiming agency over one’s body and narrative, transcending the shackles of tradition to forge a path towards empowerment and healing.

Survivor to advocate

However, her journey from survivor to advocate is nothing short of inspiring. Despite the trauma she endured, Lola emerged as an accomplished architect.

It was a chance encounter on Instagram that ignited her passion for advocacy. Upon seeing a post about FGM, she felt compelled to speak out. Little did she know, this would be the catalyst for her transformation.

Confronting her past, Lola embarked on a journey of self-discovery. She courageously confronted her mother, seeking answers to the questions that haunted her.

Through their conversation, she gained insight into the generational nature of FGM and the societal pressures that perpetuate it.

What sets Lola apart is her ability to see beyond the pain; instead of harboring resentment, she found understanding and closure.

Recognising the harm inflicted upon her, Lola made a bold decision; she refused to perpetuate the cycle.

By choosing not to subject her daughter to FGM, she broke free from tradition and became a beacon of hope for future generations.

Lola’s advocacy extends far beyond her personal experience as she is a voice for the voiceless, offering support and guidance to survivors.

Through her work, she aims to raise awareness and challenge societal norms since she understands the complexities of cultural traditions but refuses to let them overshadow the rights of women.

In her quest for change, Lola faced numerous challenges regarding convincing the custodians of culture, navigating legal systems, and overcoming deep-rooted beliefs are no easy tasks.

She, however, remains undeterred, driven by a vision of a world free from gender-based violence.

To fellow survivors, Lola offers a message of hope and courage. She urges them to find their voice, to stand up against injustice, and to embrace the power of collective action.

Together, she believes, they can rewrite the narrative and create a more equitable society.

WARDC condemns act

In its advocacy message to mark the International Day, the Woen Advocates Research and Documentation Center (WARDC) described FGM as one of the worst violence against women and girls worldwide.

According to WAEGC, in Nigeria, the number of women and girls being mutilated was unhealthy high.

It noted that UNICEF rated Nigeria as having the 3rd highest number of mutilated females in the world.

“FGM is the terrible violation of the bodily integrity, and it is not limited to rural places. Research shows that over 32 per cent of women aged 15- 49 living in urban areas have been mutilated.

“FGM is illegal in Nigeria under the Child’s Rights Act (CRA), Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015. Aiding the act of cutting a female carries a two-year jail term and an option fine at N100,000 or both. Carrying out the act carries a four-year jail term and an option of fine at N200,000 or both, ” the human rights organisation stressed.

Challenges, barriers

Though, there has been concerted efforts by governments, NGOs, and grassroots organisations, eliminating FGM remains a complex and daunting challenge.

Deeply entrenched cultural beliefs, resistance to change, lack of awareness, and inadequate legal frameworks are some of the factors that hinder progress towards eradication.

The International Day of Zero Tolerance for FGM serves as a rallying point for global action towards ending this harmful practice. International organizations such as the United Nations, WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA have spearheaded initiatives to raise awareness, strengthen legislation, provide support services for survivors, and engage communities in dialogue and education.

Grassroots movements led by survivors like Lola and activists have been instrumental in challenging cultural norms and advocating for change at the local level.

While the road to eradication is long and arduous, there have been notable successes and promising practices in the fight against FGM.

Nigeria and other countries such as Kenya, Egypt, and Senegal have implemented comprehensive legal frameworks, community-based interventions, and public awareness campaigns that have contributed to significant reductions in FGM prevalence rates.

These success stories underscore the importance of multi-sectoral approaches and collaboration between governments, civil society, and communities, hence the need for it to be sustained.

Education, empowerment as panacea

Central to the eradication of FGM is the empowerment of women and girls through education, access to healthcare, economic opportunities, and legal protection.

It is a widely perception that by promoting gender equality, challenging harmful gender norms, and providing platforms for women’s voices to be heard, societies can create environments where FGM is no longer tolerated.

Education, particularly targeted at young people, plays a crucial role in changing attitudes and behaviors towards FGM, fostering a generation that rejects harmful practices and embraces gender equality.

Call to govt

As Lola’s story illustrates, the fight against FGM was far from over. It requires not only individual courage but also systemic change. Governments must enact and enforce laws to protect women’s rights, just as communities must challenge harmful traditions and embrace gender equality.

Ultimately, Lola’s journey is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Through her advocacy, she is not only changing lives but shaping the future for generations to come. Surviving the cut was just the beginning, now, she’s leading the charge for change.

The Day serves as a powerful reminder for collective responsibility to end this egregious violation of human rights and dignity.

It is imperative to reflect on the progress made and the challenges that lie ahead. While significant strides have been made in raising awareness and mobilising action, much remains to be done to achieve the goal of eliminating FGM by 2030, as outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Sustaining the momentum would require continued political will, investment in healthcare and education, partnership-building, and amplifying the voices of survivors and advocates.